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The Scrum Master as a Servant-Leader

July 20, 2015

The role of a Scrum Master is one of many stances and diversity. A great Scrum Master is aware of them and knows when and how to apply them, depending on situation and context. Everything with the purpose of helping people understand and apply the Scrum framework better.

In a series of blog posts, I will share the 10 different stances I consider to be relevant for the Scrum Master. This blog post is about the Scrum Master as a servant-leader. Servant-leadership is fully in line with the Scrum values of courage, openness, respect, focus, and commitment. It's the backbone of the Scrum Master role and therefore the most obvious one to describe as first.

Scrum Master Stances - Servant Leader

What is servant-leadership?

It's a philosophy and a set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, to build better organizations, and ultimately create a more just and caring world. It's a transformational approach to life and work that has the potential for creating positive change throughout our society. Servant-leadership focuses on collaboration, trust, empathy and the usage of power ethically.

Servant-leadership is about:

  • Serving others, not yourself

  • Not leading by title

  • Leadership that endures

  • Helping people develop and perform as highly as possible

  • Selfless management of team members

  • Promoting genuine team ownership

  • Harnessing the collective power of a team

What is a servant-leader?

Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of the term servant-leadership, describes a servant-leader as: "The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. 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?[1]"

The servant-leaders objective is to enhance and increase teamwork and personal involvement. They create a participative environment, empowering 'employees' by sharing power and decision-making[2].

A servant-leader:

  • Focuses on building a foundation of trust

  • Stimulates empowerment and transparency

  • Encourages collaborative engagements

  • Is an un-blocker and empathic person able to truly listen

  • Shows ethical and caring behavior, putting others needs first

  • Is humble, knowledgeable, positive, social and situationally aware

The Agile Manifesto and servant-leadership

The characteristics of servant leadership can also be found within the Agile Manifesto[3]. The values ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ and ‘customer collaboration over contract negotiation’ clearly emphasize the focus on collaborative engagements, serving others (the team members) and not yourself and boosting team performance by supporting individual growth.

Principles of the Agile Manifesto that also characterize servant leadership are:

  • "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done"

  • "Business people & developers must work together daily throughout the project"

The Scrum Master as a servant-leader

The Scrum Guide[4] describes the Scrum Master as the servant-leader for the Scrum team. A Scrum Master is not a master of the team, but a master at encouraging, enabling, and energizing people to gel as a team and realize their full potential[5]. A Scrum Master is a servant-leader whose focus is on the needs of the team members and those they serve (the customer), with the goal of achieving results in line with the organization's values, principles, and business objectives[6].

As a servant-leader, the Scrum Master is responsible for:

  • Setting up Scrum as a servant process, not a commanding process[7];

  • Guiding the Development team towards self-organization;

  • Leading the team through healthy conflict and debate;

  • Teaching, coaching and mentoring the organization and team in adopting and using Scrum;

  • Shielding the team from disturbance and external threats;

  • Helping the team make visible, remove and prevent impediments;

  • Encouraging, supporting and enabling the team to reach their full potential and abilities;

  • Creating transparency by radiating information via e.g. the product and sprint backlog, daily Scrum, reviews and a visible workspace;

  • Ensuring a collaborative culture exists within the team.


By doing the research for writing this blog post I discovered that servant-leadership is a tremendous comprehensive topic. My goal was to describe the role of a Scrum Master as a servant-leader. Servant-leadership proved to be the backbone of the Scrum Master role. Its philosophy and practices increase teamwork and create an environment in which individual growth can flourish and endure.

With this blog post, I've only briefly touched the tip of the iceberg and gained a lot of new ideas to write about. When I've finished describing the other stances of the Scrum Master, I will definitely study and describe servant-leadership in more detail.

[1] Servant Leadership: a Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness by Robert K. Greenleaf
[5] Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts
[7] Scrum - a Pocket Guide by Gunther Verheyen

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