CHOW #101- The puzzled Servant-leader

Geetanjali Chatterjee (Geeta) is the Scrum Master (SM) in a project to develop the next generation of a product called ProClaims. ProClaims supported her organization’s operation as a cloud-based health-care solutions provider for small-medium clinics, physicians and insurance providers, a very competitive landscape. Geeta was a star developer earlier in another team and had recently moved to the ProClaims team as the SM.

The ProClaims team makes three-month releases, typically comprising defect fixes and enhancements. Each release is made up of six two-week sprints. Over time, the team has achieved a fairly stable velocity and delivering value. The product management team and the Product Owner Dhananjay Sen (Dan) have been quite happy with the team and its performance till recently.

Starting out as the SM, Geeta was keen to make her mark quickly. She had read about Servant-leadership and was keen to adopt it. It was all so novel compared to her earlier role as a developer. She began to spend significant one-on-one time with each team member and understand them on a personal basis, their aspirations and challenges in work & life.

After seeing through successfully a few “easy” sprints, Geeta is now facing challenges in the current sprint – beset with attrition and the challenge of integrating an AI component to enable diagnostics targeted at helping physicians. To add to Geeta’s woes, Palash Jain, a team member (a young father) involved in the AI component integration is frequently taking time off to support his wife and newborn twin girls. Geeta has been very empathetic and encouraged the team to rally around and make up for Palash’s absences but the impact cannot be wished away. It now looks like that the stories related to the AI integration are not going to be done in the current sprint.

Under the circumstances, the Product Owner, Dan was very unhappy. Geeta described the various challenges including the situation with Palash but Dan angrily retorted: “Geeta, if you can empathize so much with Palash and the developers, how come you don’t empathize with me and my situation? I am part of your team too, am I not? So, do something about it – don’t you know that our Business Head is insisting on the AI component integration for a trade show demo?” Geeta was surprised by this last bit of news from Dan. Dan’s outburst also got Geeta to think whether she was at all being an effective servant-leader for the whole team.


  1. Look up the 10 characteristics of a servant-leader and assess where Geeta is at this stage on them using the scale: 1-Very Poor; 2-Inadequate; 3-Satisfactory; 4-Good;  5-Excellent; assess as many of the characteristics as you can, given the information above
  2. As Geeta, what are the options for you and your team at this stage to address the situation? State any assumptions you may be making.

Suggested Solution:

  • Listening: Rating – At least 3 if not 4
  • Empathy: Rating – 5;

Geeta certainly seems to have spent a lot of time with the team and establishing personal connect; the PO (Dan) may disagree with the rating; however, in my view, Dan is raising Geeta’s lack of empathy towards him perhaps only as a ploy in the context of the AI product features being missed in the current sprint  

  • Healing: Cannot rate with the information in the CHOW

However, Geeta can try some “healing” with Dan, the PO right now!

  • Awareness: Rating – 2

Quote from Robert Greenleaf – “Awareness is not a giver of solace–it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity.”

At the ground level, Geeta’s score is quite low; how could she have missed the fact that Palash Jain was going to be a father soon if she had connected with him so well at a personal level; she could have even known that twin babies were on the way for Palash and taken proactive actions.

  • Persuasion: Cannot rate with the information in the CHOW

But vital for Geeta going forward; balancing empathy and persuasion!

Quote from Robert Greenleaf – “This particular characteristic offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership”

  • Conceptualization: Cannot rate with the information in the CHOW;

Consider quote from Robert Greenleaf – “For many managers this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. Servant-leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day focused approach.”

  • Foresight: Rating – 2

Same comment as in characteristic #4 above.

  • Stewardship: Rating – 2

Peter Block has defined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.” While as a servant-leader, Geeta is striving to serve the needs of her team members and their growth, she needs to better appreciate the importance of “holding the sprint goals in trust” on behalf of the business / product management / her own engineering organization

  • Commitment to the growth of people: Rating – 3; could even be 4

It is a moot point as to whether Geeta is trying Servant-leadership as just a “technique” or whether she truly believes that she, as servant-leader, should primarily be committed to enabling people to realize their potential.

  • Building community: Cannot rate with the information / context of the CHOW;

In summary, the key message is that all the ten characteristics are important and a balance is needed. Geeta should realize that empathy towards team members is not the over-arching characteristic of servant-leadership.

Exercise part 2: As Geeta, what are the options for you and your team at this stage to address the situation? State any assumptions you may be making.


There is no mention of a target date for the trade show. It is not unreasonable to assume that it is at least four weeks away. So, the question is whether the AI component integration aspects not be addressed in the next couple of sprints? Of course, there is still the constraint of Palash Jain’s availability.

Geeta has to work with Palash Jain & the team to assess the situation and explore options:

  • Can Palash not get help with his in-laws or parents in babies-sitting and get some relief?
  • Can Palash work from home whenever he can?
  • Can he guide someone at work over zoom with screen sharing?
  • Can one of the other team members work from Palash’s home taking inputs from him regularly?

If the time constraint for the trade show is too stringent, Geeta and the team (including Dan, the PO) have explore the usual suspects:

  • The minimal end-user “intelligent” features and the bare essential AI integration for demonstrating those
  • Address only the minimal integration for the current sprint and may be initiate a “spike” (to address technical challenges, if any, which are making the work difficult to estimate) to explore / enable the next level of AI integration in future sprints
  • Consider taking out work from the current sprint to accommodate the above as appropriate

Geeta should work with the PO – if a trade show participation and product demo were imminent, how come that is not explicit in the sprint goal? Is the PO working effectively with the product managers or is he an “order taker”?

There may be many other perspectives and things that can be done by Geeta and team. Anything you would like to add? Please add as comments to the post.

What do you think?

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