Servant Leadership and Scrum

by David Hinde on 21/04/2016

On page six of Scrum.Org’s Scrum Guide in a section about the Scrum Master role there is an innocuous looking line, “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.” I think a number of Scrum environments misinterpret this sentence to mean Scrum teams don’t not need to be managed or lead, they will miraculously self-organize themselves. They then wonder why no-one seems to be talking to each other, getting along with each other or even sometimes why they keep arguing. What better Scrum teams come to realise is that servant leadership does not mean no direction, no control and no management it means that the Scrum Master needs to adopt a style of leadership which will serve and grow their team.

The history of the phrase servant leadership goes back to the 1960’s. It was coined by Robert Greenleaf, an organizational change expert, after he read a story by Herman Hess called Journey to the East. In the story a group of travellers are helped in the journey by a happy and helpful servant called Leo who keeps the groups spirits high and listens and helps them with their problems. One day Leo disappears and the group realises how much they needed him. They eventually lose all morale and give up on the journey.

 Greenleaf saw that the most effective leaders start off with the motivation to serve their teams rather than trying to have power and control over them. Then the team members can develop and grow rather than be stymied by a constant autocratic leadership style. Ghandi, Mandela, Mother Theresa are all good examples of servant leaders.

 What sort of behaviours do we expect to see from servant leaders? Well they would develop relationships with their teams through trust and integrity rather than wielding their positional power. They would value listening to dissenting views and facilitating the group to come to decisions over pushing decisions onto others. They would create an environment of trust and security where people where supported and blame wasn’t attributed when people made mistakes. But also in certain circumstance they might lead and direct if that served the team best. For example when an inexperienced team member is struggling clear direction and a more controlling style of management might be best for both the team and the individual.

Servant leaders might even fire people. Most people respond well to a servant leader approach but what if they don’t and start causing havoc with the team? A servant leader will probably want to first get to the root cause of the behaviour and try and support this individual but there comes a point where the servant leader best serves the team by cutting ties with this individual which allows the group to be free of their potentially time wasting and destructive behaviour.

The whole idea of the team being managed or led with a command and control approach is an anathema for many scrum advocates. In some circumstance that is fair enough. But I worry that some scrum people over focus on the word servant and forget that leadership sometime means making tough decisions, correcting people’s bad behaviour and directing people. For me servant leadership is a healthy balance between serving and leading.

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