Scrum Master As Servant Leader

The Scrum Guide tells us: “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.” When discussing the characteristics of an excellent Scrum Master, we invariably include the idea that being a servant leader is one of the most important (and most often mentioned) characteristics that a person needs to embody if they are to excel in the role of Scrum Master. While generally accepted to be true, it’s not always clear what being a servant leader looks like for Scrum Masters. Who makes the best servant leaders and, therefore, Scrum Masters? What does it look like for a Scrum Master to truly embrace servant leadership?


Who Should Serve?

In the essay, “The Servant As Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leader.” He describes a servant leader as someone who:

“…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.”

This suggests that a servant leader’s default stance is in service to others. It’s part of who they are. It is only then that the servant aspires to lead. In the same way, the most effective Scrum Masters are servants first, doing whatever they can to help their team succeed.


Servant Leaders as Builders

Servant leaders take care ”to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test…is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf)

Scrum Masters, as servant leaders, focus their construction efforts in three areas: people, community, and consensus. Becoming a builder of people, community and consensus is key for a Scrum Master as they guide their team to reach for high performance.

People Builder

Building into the lives of others is the primary measure of a servant leader. “Do those served grow as persons?”, Greenleaf asks. Does the Scrum Master challenge their team to continuously improve? Do they facilitate growth opportunities for the individual, team and organization? Are they mentoring others as servant leaders through their efforts?

Community Builder

We live in a day and age where many seek community and few find it – at least in the truest sense of the word. Community is an environment where the individual finds: acceptance, others with common interests and the opportunity to learn and grow. The Scrum Master fosters this environment within the team and through like-minded communities of practice, facilitating Lean Coffee meetings, Open Space events or World Café’s. As I continuously remind the Scrum Masters in our organization: Your role as Scrum Master is to create the environment in which high-performing teams are likely to emerge. Community building creates those types of environments.

Consensus Builder

Scrum Masters, as servant leaders, have no positional authority. No one is required to follow them. They choose not to wield power to force their teams in the direction they think the team should go. They persuade rather than coerce. They listen to others, ask questions, learn from the past and collaboratively build decisions by involving others. The Scrum Masters goal as a consensus builder is maintaining the team’s autonomy and encouraging commitment to the decisions and direction of the team.


Characteristics of a Servant Leader

In addition to the different facets in which a servant leader “builds” into their team and organization, characteristics that define a servant leader include:

  • Self-awareness
    • Servant leaders possess a deep awareness and understanding of themselves. They know who they are and where they’re going. They know their strengths and weaknesses. They are constantly working to be the best self they can be. They know when it’s time for a break.
    • Stephen Covey’s model in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” describes the “Private Victory”, “Public Victory” and “Sharpening the Saw.” I believe this progression applies well to a servant leader in that they master themselves, then master their connection with others and then refine, renew and reflect to continuously improve.
  • Listening
    • Servant leaders exhibit excellent listening skills. Simply put, without listening intently to others, it is impossible to serve their highest priority needs.
  • Acceptance and Empathy
    • A true servant accepts everyone as they are and seeks to understand them deeply. The Scrum Master as servant leader must be accepting of all team members while holding the team as a unit to a higher standard of performance. As Greenleaf explains, “The servant as leader always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough.” This is the important difference between accepting a person and condoning dysfunctional behaviour and poor outcomes.
  • Willing and Available
    • In order to embrace the previous characteristics from this list, a servant leader needs to be willing and available to engage in them (for example, listening). By doing so, the servant leader lives in the service of others by putting their needs first.
  • Stewardship
    • A steward is charged with taking care of and overseeing the use of resources belonging to another. A servant leader is a steward in the sense of being entrusted with other people, their abilities and their growth. A Scrum Master is likewise entrusted with the team to help them grow and improve in how they approach their work.
  • Life-long learner
    • The ability to be ok with being wrong is a sign of a servant leader. Servants do not have all the answers and often have to relinquish their desires to that of others in order to best serve the others’ needs. In doing so, the Scrum Master is demonstrating that failure is a necessary part of improving and that continuously learning is simply a part of the process.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it represents characteristics I most commonly see in servant leaders as Scrum Masters. What’s missing? What other characteristics of servant leaders have you observed. Please share below.