“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.”

Lao-Tzu (Zhou Dynasty), ~550 BC

I am and never will be a ruler, in fact I don’t even fit into the traditional workplace hierarchy. I am a Servant Leader and my role is clear: to meet the needs of my team, as they go about achieving their goal. When I’m doing my job well, people shouldn’t notice me.

I recently took on the mantle of being a Delivery Manager for the NHS Alpha, the de facto Servant Leader. (For those unfamiliar with the NHS Alpha, the team are designing how the NHS.UK service can meet the health needs of the public for years to come, by connecting users with relevant content and services, creating a user journey that is both easier and better than anything currently available.)

I am often asked at the start of meetings to introduce myself which, due to my unfamiliar job title (and the nature of my role), can prove troublesome. In government, introductions are not your average courtesy; it is far more subtle human interaction than that. You see government has a hierarchy like no other – everyone has a grade and normally everyone knows what that grade is. The best analogy I think of is the simulator game ‘Theme Hospital’, where every character has their status in a bubble above their head, except instead of ailments, it is their grade that everyone knows and cares about…

Theme-Hospital-1Theme Hospital

The deference this creates cannot be overstated. I once sent someone an email asking for help, only to receive a response letting me know that I was not a high enough grade to email them directly and that I should talk to the person of appropriate grade between our two ranks.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, it is no surprise that when I talk about Servant Leadership to colleagues outside of my immediate team, I am normally met with blank faces. So when it’s my turn at the start of a meeting to introduce myself and I say I’m the team’s Delivery Manager, the first thing people normally ask is: “So the team report to you?” I believe that half of this question is an attempt to understand my role better and half to work out what grade I am (as for many this will dictate whether or not they need to bother to listen to what I am about to say next). When I state I am the team’s “Servant Leader”, their blank expressions often turn to confusion and I’m confident they’ve decided I’m not worth listening to.

As my earlier quote shows, Servant Leadership is certainly not a new concept, but the phrase has only really gained significant traction since the 1970s (through Robert K. Greenleaf coining the phrase) and most recently in agile software development, notably in a methodology called Scrum.

Scrum is a child of lean manufacturing, which Toyota pioneered in post WW2 Japan and is centred around devolving power (and leadership) down to those closest to the actual work. Unsurprisingly, most of the best ideas came from the workers actually doing the work, not the boardroom.

Scrum preaches (amongst other things) using small self-organising, multi-disciplinary teams with only two distinct roles: the Product Owner and the “Scrum Master”. The Scrum Master’s sole job is to help the team achieve their goals. They organise, unblock and generally getting things done. They must be a doer, someone who is prepared to get stuck into whatever the team needs of them, a true Servant Leader.

The NHS Alpha team use many elements of Scrum and in my role as Delivery Manager, I am expected to be the team’s Scrum Master, their Agile Coach and above all else their Servant Leader. I facilitate our “agile ceremonies”, visualise the team’s workflow, run workshops and in my case, remind people to JFDI whenever possible.

There are plenty of great examples of what modern (servant) leadership looks like, but probably none more quoted that Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar. In his book, Creativity, Inc, he defines it better than I ever could:

“The way I see it, my job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it. The best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.

“Successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

When people say “so the team reports to you?” I say, “Absolutely not, they report to themselves. I may ask the team to do something, but ultimately they decide if they should or not”.

This may sound like anarchy, but the key here is trust and it goes both ways. This is not a new concept and has always been the foundation of a great team. Like any relationship built on trust, if either side breaks that bond, it’s incredibly hard to get it back.

I’ve seen many managers publicly subscribe to servant leadership, but when the pressure builds, they often end up reverting back to the chain of command, remind the team what grade they are and lose them forever.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

John Quincy Adams (6th President of the USA)


  1. I like how you didn’t actually reveal in this post what grade you are compared to your team. I wasn’t aware the Civil Service had this kind of grades hierarchy, and that’s really shocking. It’s obviously causing a lot of inappropriate snobbery between staff. Hopefully the kind of practices we have in software development will spread to other areas of government.

    (And I liked your reference to Theme Hospital. It was a great game back in the day!)

  2. I recently attended a presentation about the restructuring of a certain UK public sector organisation. This is happening in the name of efficiency and flexibility, and is a reasonable idea in principle. New management structures are part of the reorg.

    The presenter said something that really bugged me though. When questioned about details, he said something like “it would obviously be inappropriate for the manager to be the same grade as the staff”. He may have even used the word “resource” instead of, you know, “person”.

    My immediate thought was “How is it at all obvious? Where’s the logical connection between reporting lines, seniority and pay?”.

    This kind of thinking really permeates the public sector and is an impediment to progress and lateral thinking. There are several possible alternatives for this new organisational structure, some of which could be more efficient than the one that’s been chosen. But by embracing the presumption of hierarchy (it’s “obvious”, remember) they’ve automatically limited their options.


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