Skip to main content

Hey Scrum Master! Are You a Serving Leader?

July 9, 2019

Scrum Masters lead by serving others; It sounds paradoxical, but it works.

This is a blog about leadership: leadership in Scrum Teams, communities, and businesses. It is also a blog about personal growth and offers a complimentary “action approach” to Scrum Masters, inspired by the book The Serving Leader.

The book covers five principles you need to know to implement servant leadership in your Scrum Team and your organization.

Principle 1: Upend the pyramid

Serving Leaders upend the pyramid: "You qualify to be first by putting other people first." The illusion of being Superman doesn't allow Scrum Masters to let their teams self-organize and unleash their full potential. 

On most occasions, Scrum Masters behave like Problem Solvers: The moment the development team comes up with a problem, there is a bell that rings inside his or her head and an inner voice that pops up saying, "I have a Solution."

 You may also like: Dear Scrum Master: The Scrum Events Are Theirs, Not Yours

But Scrum Masters should upend this typical leadership pyramid. Instead of giving solutions to the development team, they should probe the team to explore and experiment. For this to happen, though, they need to drop something very precious: their ego.

Scrum Masters as Serving Leaders must know how to handles their own egos because the best outcomes come from genuine teamwork. When a Scrum Master keeps the personal ego in check—and builds the confidence and self-esteem of others—it is then possible for the team to work together. 

When I was a Scrum Master, I created a flipchart with a big text "DROP EGO HERE" and posted it on a door. One of my daily rituals was then to take a sticky note, write an ego with a smiley on it, and stick it on the flipchart. This tactic might sound silly, but it has worked for me for many years to "keep my ego outside the door." 

 "When a leader models the importance of building up others and doesn't care about getting the credit for the achievement, other members of the team will do the same thing." 

Principle 2: Raise the bar

People are people. Whatever their situation, you get greatness out of them by expecting it. That's just the way it is. This phenomenon is also known as the Pygmalion effect: High expectation leads to higher performance. 

I bet you would agree that nobody has ever achieved peak performance by staying in their comfort zone. In order to achieve excellence, one must move out of the comfort zone. When high skills meet high challenges, only then can one experience a flow state, a state at which there is no difference between the knowledge, the work, and the person. Surfers call this "becoming one with the waves."  

Scrum Masters play a crucial role to ensure the creative juices are flowing in the minds of the development team and their skills have been challenged so that the team achieves a personal mastery.

 The best way to reach down to someone is to give them a challenging reason to reach up. 

Principle 3: Blaze the trail

Serving Leaders are trailblazers. They do more than teaching, mentoring, and coaching. They push obstacles out of the way of the people they are serving. Their success lies in clearing the path for others to succeed

On the flip side, do not solve impediments that teams can solve themselves. A Scrum Master needs to keep a balance and make sure they are removing impediments that the teams cannot remove themselves, otherwise they themselves become the biggest roadblock in their team's growth.

One of the daily rituals for me as a Scrum Master was to practice "Non-Interference," deliberately making efforts not to interfere with the team's self-organization. I actually used to set reminder timers for myself on my phone, which helped me stay focused on this throughout the day. This simple tactic helped me in making my team more self-organizing, and I was able to focus on removing other organizational impediments that could impede my team's agility.

 We teach others the knowledge, skills, and strategies they need to succeed. And we work hard to get obstacles out of their way so they can make progress. 

Principle 4: Build on strength

You've heard that the best way to improve yourself is to work on your weaknesses. It turns out that the opposite is true. I've been working on my weaknesses for many years. "Paradoxically," one gets better results by shifting attention away from the weaknesses. It's far more productive to shift the focus to the strengths.

The Serving Leader's job is to focus everyone on the team and in the organization and in the community on living out their strengths. When the team is living out their day-to-day lives by exercising their strengths, they're more productive and much happier.

Serving Leaders must work towards building teams where everyone is living out their strengths on a daily basis. Serving Leadership is about upending the pyramid, raising the bar, and blazing the trail. But it's also about something very important: It builds on strength. 

And now I understand what my Grandpa used to say about new eyes. You can't build on strength if you can't see the strength—if all you see is the weakness. To be a Serving Leader, you need new eyes!

One of the key strengths of the Scrum Master is to identify the Team strengths and ensure they gets stronger. This is how you build high performing teams

 A high-performance team is put together with the greatest care and attention to how each person's strengths can be used to the max and how the weaknesses will get covered by someone else on the team. 

Principle 5: Run to great purpose

Serving Leaders articulate a purpose so compelling that people are willing to run towards it. The leaders set the pace, and this spirit gets transferred to the people they serve.

Scrum Masters put themselves at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team and the community. Dan Pink also describes this in his book Drive; "Having a purpose," he says, helps with unlocking the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. 

Hence, as a Serving Leader, Scrum Masters need to ensure that the Scrum Team understands the very purpose of their existence.  

One of the complementary practices I used as a Scrum Master was to facilitate a Vision workshop with the Scrum Team and craft the Team Vision. And once the team vision was crafted, we inspected it with the Company vision to see if it aligned. Based on that, I got many probing insights and coaching moments for my Scrum Team, and I was able to help them align to a common mission.


Perhaps you may recognize yourself in parts of this blog, too. If so, then you are already on your path. I hope this blog offers you some guidance as well as encouragement as you continue on your journey of both personal and professional growth that is much needed as a Scrum Master.


What did you think about this post?