Should Product Owners be Servant-Leaders?

By Roman Pichler, 22nd November 2016
Photo by Matthew Henry, courtesy of Unsplash

Being an effective product owner or product manager requires leadership: the development team and stakeholders need guidance and direction to collaborate and achieve product success. But as product people, we usually don’t have any authority over the individuals; we can’t tell people what to do. Can servant-leadership—leading others by serving them—help product owners and product managers guide and direct people?

What Is Servant-Leadership?

Servant-leadership means that “one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead,” writes Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the servant-leadership model. Servant-leaders want to “make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” so that they “become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous.”

Sounds crazy? To me, servant-leadership means leading from the heart: recognising that the people we work with are first and foremost human beings. Caring for them and building strong relationships with them are prerequisites for achieving great things together. If we don’t care for the people we want to lead, they are unlikely to trust and follow us.

Caring for the followers, the people we work with, is present in other leadership models, too. Transformational leadership urges leaders to show genuine concern for the needs and feelings of their followers, for example, and Goleman’s leadership styles recognise affiliative leadership as an approach that puts people first. In Scrum, servant-leadership is regarded as the default leadership approach embodied by the ScrumMaster.

How Can Servant-Leadership Benefit Product Owners?

Servant-leadership encourages us to reflect on our motivation to be product leaders. Why do we want to lead others? Is it to gain power, status, success, or money? Is it to succeed together and help the people we lead grow and develop?

There is nothing wrong with gaining respect as well as a bonus or pay rise. But if these motivators dominate our thinking, we are in danger of no longer caring for the people we lead but seeing them as tools to advance our personal ambitions. This negatively affects our relationship with them and reduces their willingness to trust and follow us.

Servant-leadership also helps us question our approach to achieving success. Is the end—a successful product—more important than the means—how we got there? Do we expect that people just do their job, function, perform, and deliver? Are working extra hours and weekends normal to get a product release out? Or do we take an interest in the people we work with, show kindness to them, and encourage the developers to go home when they look tired and worn out?

Don’t get me wrong—I am no utopian. I know that great products are the result of hard work. But if we want sustained success and a work environment that is healthy and conducive to creative work, then we must care for the people we work with and lead—the development team and the stakeholders. This starts with taking a real interest in others, making an effort to be present and engage properly.

Next time you are tempted to tell the dev team that you expect them to work extra hours, stop and reflect. Check if there isn’t room for thinning out a feature or hiring an expert that would accelerate the progress. And when this annoying programmer complains about the user stories again or the pushy sales guy reiterates that the product strategy is wrong, take a deep breath.

Recall that we all have healthy and unhealthy traits and remind yourself of the individual’s positive qualities. Then kindly but clearly share your thoughts.


Should Product Owners be Servant-Leaders?
Article Name
Should Product Owners be Servant-Leaders?
Servant-leadership, leading others by serving them, is a common leadership model for ScrumMasters. Can it also benefit product owners?
Pichler Consulting

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One comment on “Should Product Owners be Servant-Leaders?

  1. Tom Jenny

    Looking forward to learning more about product ownership as I transition from the more typical BA role

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