Reading Time 13 minutes
Scrum Masters - If there is one aspect that can set an effective Scrum Master apart from the pack, it is Servant Leadership. Are you looking to be an effective Scrum Master?
In this in-depth guide I explore the Servant Leadership with the context of the Scrum Master role, the characteristics of a Servant-Leader and how you can apply these characteristics to become an effective Scrum Master.
A Servant-Leader desires to serve. A Servant-Leader serves first. This behaviour is opposite to a traditional manager’s style which is to Manage/Lead first.
A Scrum Master is a Servant-Leader. Scrum Master serves the Team’s agenda, helps them grow and succeed.
Jump to Topics Below:
What is Servant-Leadership?
Servant Leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that are based on serving and caring for others, to lead. Servant Leadership behavior creates a more just and caring world by enriching people, and building better organizations.
Robert Greenleaf, defined a Servant-Leader as:
The Servant-Leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That leader significantly differs from one who is leader first, may be due to the need to acquire power, material belonging, control and authority within the organization.
The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme leadership styles. There are a variety of shades between these two styles.
Robert Greenleaf popularized the Servant Leadership movement in 1970 through his article – The Servant as Leader. In which he coined the words "Servant-Leader" and "Servant Leadership."
Servant Leadership and Scrum
How is Servant Leadership is useful for application of Scrum? Scrum is a team sport. Self-Organization and Team Collaboration is essential for the success of any Scrum implementation. This is practically not achievable in the presence of top-down, command-oriented management within organizations.
To enable self-organization teams must be free from central point of authority.
First, the 5 Scrum values - Openness, Respect, Commitment, Courage and Focus, align well with the philosophy of Servant Leadership.
It's about your character and behaviours. How you practice what you preach to your people. Do you respect your people, show openness while listening to their ideas, display courage in keeping their needs ahead of yours etc.
Second, the Scrum framework recognizes the role of the Scrum Master in making the Scrum successful. Scrum Guide clarifies that the Scrum Master is a Servant-Leader.
This is about people and serving them to help them be successful. As part of the Scrum Master’s role, the Scrum Guide lists the Scrum Master’s service to the Development Team, the Product Owner and the Organization. Scrum Master serves these roles to help them meet their goals and become successful.
Third, Scrum Master leads building a high performing team. Facilitates team's transformation.
It’s about the vision, the purpose, and the objectives. It’s about how Scrum Master leads the organization, to make progress towards a better future.
Servant Leadership and Scrum Master Role
The Scrum Master is a Servant-Leader for the Scrum Team – Scrum Guide. To encourage Servant Leadership behavior, the Scrum Master role by design, does not have organizational authority or power.
The Scrum Master is not a boss or an alternate title for a manager of the team.
Absence of organizational power, allows the Scrum Master to establish Psychological safety within the team. Which in turn empowers the team members and allows them to self-organize.
A Scrum Master with her leadership, enables the Scrum Team to become High Performing Team that can rapidly adapt to the changing customer needs and solve customer challenges.
Who does the Scrum Master serve? The Scrum Master serves the Development Team, the Product Owner and the Organization in several ways in their endeavor to apply Scrum and get benefits from it.
A leader creates an environment where people can contribute and flourish. An environment where people are cared and feel safe to express themselves. An environment where they've enough empowernment to make necessary decisions. Scrum Master is that leader for the Scrum Team.
If the Scrum Master possesses organizational power, that limits the chances of establishing a safe environment.
How does Servant-Leadership style work with traditional managers? The paradoxical style of Servant Leadership is difficult to enact for the traditional managers. They are comfortable with the leadership aspect, but no the servant aspect.
If you are a Scrum Master who also happens to have organizational authority - aka responsibility of product delivery, the team members reporting in to you, you make financial decisions, you write performance reviews, etc. observe your behavior closely.
If asked, will my colleagues and team members say that I serve them?
Do I serve their agenda, or do they have to serve my agenda?
Am I able to justify responsibility as a Servant-Leader?
New Scrum Masters and Servant Leadership:
It's not uncommon for novice Scrum Masters to restrict themselves to being the servant or secretary of the Scrum Team.
First time and particularly untrained Scrum Master usually limit their focus on setting up the meeting invites, arranging supplies, jotting down the meeting minutes, updating team's tasks on the task board, creating reports and sending out communications on behalf of the team members or PO etc.
They mostly miss exhibiting the leadership aspect. It doesn't have to be this way.
What do experts say about Servant Leadership?
"The difference between Servant-Leaders and other leaders manifests in the care taken by the servant-first-leaders to ensure other people's needs are being served. A quick test of the servant leadership is:
a) Do those who are being served grow as persons?
b) Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
c) What is the effect on the least privileged in society?
d) Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"
The servant leadership is not about being submissive, letting go or giving in. It is about the genuine interest to serve others.
Inspired by “Journey to the East” by Herman Hesse, Greenleaf coined the concept of the Servant-Leader. In “The Servant as Leader”, Greenleaf said:
...the Journey to the East story clearly says: the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to her/his greatness. Leo - the character in the story, was actually the leader, all the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down within.
Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was a servant by nature. Leo was a servant first.
If there is a single characteristic of the servant-leader that stands out in Greenleaf's essay it is,
The desire to serve.
Another very insightful observation by Greenleaf is that Servant-Leaders are Self-Aware. "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”.
From a Scrum Master's perspective, Servant Leadership is about identifying and serving the needs of the Team and the Stakeholders.
8 Servant-Leader Behaviours for every Scrum Master
The characteristics of Servant leadership are inherent to some people. These characteristics can be further learned and such behaviours can be refined through practice.
How to apply Servant Leadership in my role as a Scrum Master? If you want to become effective at the Scrum Master role, you may begin with asking: How can I develop Servant-Leadership skills? For Scrum Masters to display Servant-Leadership, it is essential to develop and practice Servant-Leader behaviors.
Below 8 Servant-Leader behaviours combined make them highly relevant for the Scrum Master role. Applied to any team and organisational environment, these Servant-Leadership behaviours transforms the organizational culture to a caring, safe and high-performing culture.
Let's take a look at these behaviours
#1 Servanthood and Caring:
As a Scrum Master, you do not have any authority in the organization. You derive influence from your subject matter expertise of Scrum and by having the heart to serve your team and care for them.
As a Servant-Leader you seek to empower the team members and invite them in decision making. Your behaviour is of serving and caring. It enhances the growth of team members while improving the caring and quality of organizational life.
Is your emphasis on serving your team-members for their good and not just the good of the organization? If yes, then you sure are one effective Scrum Master.
#2 Empowering and Helping:
Are you concerned about the success of all stakeholders? Broadly stakeholders include employees, customers, business partners, communities, and society, including those who are the least privileged.
Servant-Leader Scrum Masters believe that team members have an intrinsic value beyond their apparent responsibilities as employees. These Scrum Masters are deeply committed to the development and growth of each and every Scrum Team member.
During my work as a Scrum Master, I aimed to nurture the professional as well as personal growth of team members I worked with.
Let me share the story of Pat. Pat was one of our team members who had excellent business analysis and customer interview skills. Pat was going through some emotional challenges with his new wife. I invited him for a coffee one day. We briefly discussed his situation. I asked Pat, if he wanted my help? Pat showed interest and we setup time for three coaching sessions. We mutually agreed that the coaching will be intended to focus on how Pat can become aware of and possibly change his behaviour.
During our second session, I offered Pat to take a quick assessment to become aware of his own emotions. To understand the range of his emotions and what behaviour/situation, triggered the positive emotions and what triggered the negative emotion was first step.
Now Pat's aim was to identify the positive emotional triggers while he was with his wife and prolong those. Where as any triggers causing negative emotions and trauma were to be narrowed in duration and limited in intensity as much as possible. It wasn't easy or quick, however Pat was determined to change his situation.
Becoming aware of his emotions empowered him to identify how he can best deal with the circumstances. Pat would try to build up whenever he experienced positive emotions such as Joy, Hope, Pride, Inspiration, Awe, Gratitude, etc.
There are wide variety of opportunities where you can help your team members develop professional as well as personal capability and grow.
Think about what opportunities within your team exists this week where you can help your team members grow.
#3 Serving Team’s Agenda:
A Scrum Master as a servant-leader uses his capabilities and skills to help the team establish their agenda. The Scrum Master serves the team's agenda, not her own.
The Scrum Master does not impose any directions or mandate upon the team.
A Servant-leader Scrum Master instead, believes in Change by Invitation.
She invites the team to choose the goals and the direction. She invites team members to opt in to participate and keeps options open for anyone to opt out.
It is important to understand that if a person is titled as a Scrum Master but also carries traditional manager's responsibility to deliver a release, or to manage the team members etc, she'll not be able to truly serve the team's agenda. Such person will almost always end up making others follow her direction and agenda that she sets.
There is also a boundary to serving team's agenda. For example: If a Product Owner's agenda is to finish certain number of features by this Sprint however the team clearly sees that as not practical. Though you want the Product Owner to succeed, however, in such situation it your responsibility to shield the Development Team from the excessive pressure of the Product Owner. Often Scrum Masters give-in to the pressure and allow the PO to overload the Dev Team.
What do you think is the result in situations when the Development Team was asked to deliver more than they could practically deliver
a) A product having defects and poor quality
b) Stressed and overworked Team members from having to work extra nights and weekends
c) Accrual of Technical Debt
In any of the situation, can you say the Team's Agenda was served?
#4 Building Relationships:
Establishing and nurturing long-term relationships with all stakeholders, keeping the team-members in focus, helps them meet their fullest potential. If you are genuinely serving, caring and helping your team members grow, building relations with them will not be an issue. To build longer term relations, you would need to forgo short term approach/gains and allow for the things to settle.
Healthy relations with the team creates a synergy among the team-members and boosts team's performance and growth.
Is your emphasis on building long term and healthy relationships? If yes, you are on track.
#5 Being Humble:
Like a good leader, the Scrum Master stays humble and practices regular self-reflection. Counter to a traditional leader's pride, servant leaders exhibit humility in their behaviour.
Servant leaders don’t think less of themselves they just think of themselves less.
They have high self-confidence but very low situational confidence. If they are faced with a situation, their response would most likely be: I have the intellect to solve all the problems, but I don’t have all the answers and for that I need other people’s brain.
In today’s world where there is so much information and so many tools, its important to acknowledge that one person cannot know everything and that everyone needs or at some time will need his/her team members' help.
A servant-leader will not take pride in the moments of success but will surely accept errors in times of failure.
#6 Emotional Healing:
Your people are going through change all the time. There is uncertainty, and failures. Some of your people may have bruises. Many of them may go through emotional turbulences. Are you able to emotionally heal them? Offer your support?
As per Tuckman’s Team Development development model, team go through Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing phases. While your team is going through Forming, Norming and Storming phase of the team development, as a Scrum Master, are standing by your team during this time of change?
As a Servant-Leader, any emotional healing and support that you offer can go long way in building an environment of trust and care within the team.
#7 Being Empathic:
Being Empathic involves deeply connecting with the emotions of the other individual without judgement and critique. It is an essential behaviour of Servant-Leaders. Empathy starts with listening. Genuinely being present in the moment with somebody and listening with your whole self helps understand the other person's situation. Here the aim is to slow down and listen with the intent to understand the meaning behind the words, meaning of what is being felt, and what is not being said. Empathy connects two people by heart. Connecting with someone by heart is much more powerful than connecting only through brain.
For Scrum Masters who are not naturally empathic (count me in with you), being aware of and caring about others' emotions is the starting point of developing empathy. Empathically listening to what your team members say and acknowledging what you sense+hear.
Elena, you seem to worried. How can I help?
David, I hear you are concerned about Matt's behaviour. What would you like to happen?
When you lend someone your empathic ears, they get it. They feel safe and comfortable to share even more.
Scrum Master through Empathy builds relationships, heals the team members, earns trust and gains influence.
#8 Being Ethical:
The moral component of the Scrum Masters must be strong. Being ethical relates to the way in which a servant-leader makes choices, disciplines herself and chooses the right thing to do in the service of the team. The Scrum Master may also encourage the team to self reflect and establish high standards of moral and ethical behaviour.
The team members constantly observe the moral basis of the servant-leader's actions and organizational goals and relate to them. If you as a Scrum Master have ingrained integrity and professionalism in yourself, it'll be possible to bring it in the team.
Often times, the Scrum Master may realize that the team needs to mature and they must be empowered, educated to handle their own meetings, hold each other accountable, collaborate with users and PO and deliver value. And time comes when the Scrum Master may not be providing the best value for the team and hence should decide to either step down from that role or move on.
Displaying this high level of ethics and courage to step down from one's role, to let go, is the best way you can become really effective at performing the Scrum Master's role.