Servant leadership and the role of a Scrum Master

By The App Business under Agile 29 June 2016

The role of a Scrum Master plays an important part in our teams here at TAB, but it can be somewhat hard to define. The job title alone often gives rise to lots of questions - from clients, new starters - about what, exactly, a Scrum Master does.

Ultimately, it is a management and leadership role, but not one many people are familiar with: a combination of many skills that requires a very specific personality to achieve the best results.

Essentially, a good Scrum Master needs to be able to define and help embed processes, and at the same time, they also need to act as a team confidant, a proactive coach, and an organisational change agent - to name but a few. The overarching theme, however, and perhaps the most important thing to remember, is that a Scrum Master must be a ‘servant leader’ to the team.

In this post, I want to elaborate on what it means to be a servant leader, how this differs from traditional management - and why being a successful Scrum Master ultimately means leaving your ego at the door.

To kick things off, let’s first look at traditional management methodologies to understand what a Scrum Master is not.

Traditional management roles

Traditional management roles have their roots in military theory. They tend to rely on a designated leader giving clear, decisive direction to a team. This leader would then prescribe how the team should go about their work, who should do what, and when activities should be completed by.

In this capacity, the leader is given power and authority over others because they are recognised as having the best skills and information to command and control their team for the best result - or victory, to continue the military theme.

Well, that’s all well and good - but most of us today would recognise this clearly as a very dogmatic approach, and it is completely in contrast to the way things operate in the realm of a Scrum Master.

Defining servant leadership

Servant leadership isn’t a radical new idea - it has pedigree, just like traditional management roles. The term itself may have been originally coined as a phrase in an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, but its origins actually date back thousands of years - and as a principle, can be readily found in philosophy and religion.

A key principle behind servant leadership is that the leader is not a superior, but rather a part of the body of the team. It is in this way that the role is fundamentally different to traditional management roles. A servant leader isn’t the head, sat on high and commanding others: it’s a much more humble role, which recognises that all component parts of the ‘body’ must work and support each other.

This means a servant leader has no authority or power over other team members, and they must therefore operate in a completely flat structure with zero hierarchy. Everyone is considered equal in an agile team.

The goal of the servant leader is therefore to help the team - the collective group - achieve the goals they define together, and dedicating their leadership skills to helping that same team perform at as high a standard as possible.

How best to serve the team

There are a few things that a servant leader needs to learn to embrace throughout their journey. Having previously worked as a more traditional project manager for several years, for example, before I made the move to a Scrum Master role, the first thing that I wrestled with was the feeling that I now had a lack of control over a team. In order to become a competent Scrum Master, I had to learn to relinquish the control that I had become accustomed to. That move pushes many of us out of our comfort zone, and often makes people feel - initially at least - anxious, particularly when a deadline is looming.

Another key shift from the world of traditional management roles is that the team are empowered to make their own decisions, and trusted to organise themselves to carry out work in the way that they deem the most suitable and efficient. Micro-management certainly isn’t called for, and the Scrum Master must give the team the space they need to determine how they work best. It is essential that there is trust in the team to complete the work that they have committed to deliver.

It can be a scary proposition to give the team considerable space to make decisions, as naturally, mistakes will be made. However, a good Scrum Master knows that mistakes are unavoidable: it is human nature, after all, and mistakes are additionally a good teacher.

The servant leader in this capacity should act as a mirror to the team in such situations, making the mistakes visible to the team, and supporting them as they work to inspect, learn and adapt their behaviours in order to solve a challenge, and ultimately achieve their desired goal.

The servant leader also works to protect the team from any outside influences, defending the space they need to ‘fail forward’ and learn from their failures. As hard as that concept is for many stakeholders to embrace, the Scrum Master is a powerful advocate for reminding others that often, the best successes and behaviour changes come from initially being allowed the space to make mistakes.

The importance of leaving egos at the door

In order to get the best out of a team, it is fundamental that a Scrum Master comes into the role with no ego - or, at least, learns to let it go. There are many reasons why this is essential.

Firstly, the success of the role is dependent on the team being successful. It is not about personal success. As a Scrum Master, you need to practice humility and derive satisfaction from making others better, and celebrating the successes of others, and the team.

Another reason, and related to the fact that the Scrum Master should practice humility, is that there is no authority in this role. If you are looking for a powerful management role - well, keep on walking.

Thirdly, when it comes to decision-making, the Scrum Master needs to separate out and learn to keep quiet their own opinions. The team is built from a group of specialists, and as such, they are best placed to make decisions regarding the detail. They make the decisions, not the Scrum Master. The skill and strength of the Scrum Master is measured in their ability to facilitate effective decision-making, thereby helping the team identify what they should do in a given situation.

As an analogy, I like to think of the role of the Scrum Master as the glue that holds the team together. The role ensures cohesion between the elements of the delivery process, and helps to strengthen the bond between team members. Like all good glue, its work might go unnoticed in many respects, but if you remove it, the structure can collapse quickly.

Wrapping it up 

Hopefully, from reading this post, you have a clear understanding of how servant leadership differs from traditional leadership, and an idea of some of the challenges that a Scrum Master may face.

Great Scrum Masters become hugely influential leaders, placing others and the success of the team firmly before themselves. At TAB, we recruit Scrum Masters from a broad range of skill sets, experience levels and backgrounds - what we look for, first and foremost, is a deeply shared sense of servant leadership.

As a community of practice at TAB, one of our core values is that if the team succeeds, then so do you. If you would like to learn more about the role of Scrum Master, and the integral role we play in TAB’s delivery teams, drop us a line.