Sep 19th, 2017

The Scrum Master in the servant-leader role


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Servant leadership is a practice and philosophy of leadership. The philosophy is ancient, though Robert Greenleaf made the phrase known in our time. However, passages describing servant leadership are found in documents as old as the Tao Te Ching (China, sixth century BC).

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a "servant" is a person who performs duties for others; "leadership" is the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or having the ability to do this. The meanings can relate to each other when we see that one leadership quality can be serving.

Origin of Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf, who invented the idea of servant leadership as we use the term in Scrum, wrote, "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 person is sharply different from one who is leader first; perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions . . .

The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."

Greenleaf identified ten major leadership characteristics, and I rely heavily on his descriptions and those of other writers:

  • Listening. This is the main important characteristic for any communication. According to Greenleaf, "Only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first."
  • Empathy. This is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. According to Greenleaf, this is "the servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects." He also wrote, "Men grow taller when those who lead them empathize, and when they are accepted for who they are. . . ."
  • Healing. According to Greenleaf, healing is "to make whole."
  • Awareness. Without awareness, "we miss leadership opportunities."
  • Persuasion. Servant leadership uses personal rather than positional power to influence followers and achieve organizational objectives.
  • Conceptualization. The servant leader can conceive solutions to problems that do not currently exist.
  • Foresight. Foresight is a better-than-average guess about what is going to happen, and when, in the future.
  • Stewardship. Organizational stewards, or "trustees," are concerned not only for the individual followers within the organization but also for the organization as a whole, and its impact on and relationship with all of society.
  • Commitment to the growth of people. According to Greenleaf, "The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be."
  • Building community. The rise of large institutions has eroded community, the social pact that unites individuals in society.
According to Greenleaf, "All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form . . . is for enough servant-leaders to show the way."

Why We Need Servant Leadership in Scrum

The Scrum framework is used for complex product systems based on empirical process control. Scrum has self-organized teams, which surely means the team would have a tendency to understand and support the serving and leading concept.

The term "servant" does not mean to become a servant; instead, it means to lead but in a service mode -- unlike traditional styles of management, where the leader needs to use a command style. In Scrum, the servant-leadership model is a concept to help delegate the work to the team as much as possible.

This is done by the Scrum Master, who then spends most of his or her time serving the team. So, the Scrum Master's main role is to follow this concept. The Scrum Master acts as a servant leader who serves the product owner, team, and organization. This is a crucial role.

Where the Scrum Master fits as the servant

  • Serves the whole team, including the product owner.
  • Responsible for making sure Scrum values and principles are followed within the team and organization.
  • Facilitates all meetings and planning processes for the team.
  • Always helps the team, acting as an "umbrella" to shield the team from outside problems.
  • Ready to remove impediments.
  • Coordinates with the team and product owner.
  • Helps the team reach its goals.
  • Communicates among the stakeholders, PO, and the team.
  • Coaches the team and product owner in Agile best practices.
  • Helps the team collaborate.
  • Encourages transparency within the team.

Where the Scrum Master fits as a leader

As in the statements above, we notice that the Scrum Master serves the whole organization. Apart from this, the Scrum Master also has leadership qualities.

There are three types of leadership styles:

  • Autocratic leaders. They make decisions without consulting their team members, even if their input would be useful. It's appropriate when quick decisions are necessary.
  • Democratic leaders. They include team members in the decision-making process.
  • Laissez-faire. They give team members the freedom to set their decisions, task deadlines, etc. A Scrum Master plays all the above leadership roles in different situations.


When we look at all aspects of the servant and leadership styles in Agile, we come to the point where we see that the Scrum Master is the perfect role for servant leadership. He or she is the most capable person to serve the team in a true servant-leadership style.


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