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What Does It Mean for The Scrum Master to Be a True Leader as Written in Scrum Guide?

February 26, 2021
This is part #32 of 59 in the series Scrum Guide 2020 Updates

True Leader

So what’s good this week awesome people? For this opportunity, I am writing a blog rather than making a video on my youtube channel since my family just moved to Brisbane and I am still waiting for all my gears to be sent across the continent.

The recent update on Scrum Guide has leveraged the accountability of the Scrum Master. In fact, the very first few lines of the Scrum definition section in Scrum Guide immediately starts with the explanation of what the Scrum Master does in the organisation. This is quite interesting because in many organisations, the Scrum Master has been the second class citizen. In fact, many organisations still see Scrum Master as a low value role. The Scrum Guide also mentioned that the Scrum Master is a true leader. But have you ever asked yourself what does it mean to be a true leader? If there is a true leader, does that mean there are fake leaders out there? Or maybe unauthentic leaders? Or maybe bogus leaders?

The Scrum Guide also says that the Scrum Master is the true leader who is accountable for value delivery effectiveness. Anyone who is able and willing to take this accountability is called the Scrum Master regardless of the person’s title or position in the company. For example, someone in the organisation may have a title as the Enterprise Agile Coach, but if he/she is accountable for value delivery effectiveness, in the context of Scrum we can say that person is the Scrum Master.

Let’s get back to our initial question about true leadership. There are many models of leadership out there. From Autocratic leadership, Machiavellian leadership, Democratic leadership, Laissez-faire leadership, Agile leadership and even Servant leadership. In fact, the previous version of Scrum Guide says the Scrum Master is the servant leader. So why does it need to change to the true leader?

Servant leadership is just one of the leadership models that the Scrum Master uses. Oftentimes when an organisation or the Scrum Master himself/herself reads that the Scrum Master is the servant leader, the Scrum Master becomes the team’s personal assistant. This misperception ends up with the organisation seeing the Scrum Master role as fungible. And that is why many organisations rotate the Scrum Master role. True leadership is leadership without the extra noun in front of it - the root of leadership. True leadership is about leading people without authority from the front, from the side and from behind in a balanced way. When the Scrum Master leads from the front, from the side and from behind which in the end should contribute to improving the Scrum Team effectiveness. As I am writing this, I am speaking to myself as there are many leadership aspects that I need to improve as a Scrum Master. Consider this blog as a personal note to myself.


Leading from the front

Most Scrum Teams I have worked with in the past few years have already heard of Scrum. They may already have read resources on the internet or watched videos about Scrum on  youtube. In my personal experience, most of the time the kind of Scrum they know is the dark Scrum. Dark Scrum is easier to digest as it is closer to their current bias. 

A lot of people on the internet sphere also say that agile is about mindset and having agile mindset is more important than Scrum. But the agile mindset is very abstract. How do we really know that someone already got the agile mindset? We can’t possibly do brain surgery to each individual to ensure they already have the mindset. Mindset can manifest in different behaviours depending on the culture and the context. For example, commitment in one culture can mean fixed scope and fixed time, in another culture it can mean working long crazy hours while in another culture it can mean delivering excellence even working in short hours. 

With this complexity, I have learned that promoting a more humane Scrum through theories only or just promoting that agile is a mindset is not effective enough to improve the organisation current state of agility. Rather than explaining to them that agile is a mindset I found that being an example and demonstrating behaviours that are needed for agility is much more effective. When people inside the organisation model the Scrum Master behaviour and it is persistent it will become a habit and it will then become a mindset. 

Rather than telling a bunch of rhethorics to the organisation, the Scrum Master becomes the model or the mirror of agility. When people in the organisation want to know what agility is about, they just look at the Scrum Master’s behaviour. For example, rather than promoting the concept of a self-managing team the Scrum Master should start by letting the team gauge how many Product Backlog items they think is possible and not blame them at the end of the Sprint when they missed their forecast. 

Leading from the front, as written on Scrum Guide, also requires the Scrum Master to establish empirical product planning for a complex environment. Besides establishing the empirical process control, leading from the front also involves visualising how agility will look like to everyone in the organisation. Without a clear picture of agility, people may not be motivated to change their behaviours and may fall back to the old way of working. To achieve both of this, the Scrum Master needs to have vision on agility and to have systems thinking. 

When leading from the front, the Scrum Master leads by being a living example and gives a clear visualisation of agility. The Scrum Master becomes the mirror of agility. It requires integrity and congruence to be the mirror of agility. The Scrum Master must walk the talk. When people choose to be led by the Scrum Master it is not because he/she has authority and uses his/her power but because he/she is inspiring. People are inspired when being around the Scrum Master and looking forward to learning more from the Scrum Master.


Leading from the side

Leading from the side means spreading awesomeness and partnering with those who chose to be led by the Scrum Master. Many Scrum Masters and agile coaches think their job is only about coaching people or to be more precise asking questions without even hinting any solutions. Professional coaching is good in certain situations and for certain individuals. When the Scrum Master only uses the coaching stance regardless of the context, it may cause harm for the organisation. Relevance is important to improve the Scrum Team's effectiveness.

As a Scrum Master, sometimes we need to get our hands dirty and actually demonstrate how to do certain techniques that will improve the agility of the organisation and Scrum team effectiveness in delivering value. For example, if the Scrum Master knows that the team has continuously failed because they still do manual regression testing for the past twenty Sprints, rather than just telling the team to do Test Driven Development (TDD) without demonstrating it to them, it is much better if the Scrum Master sit down with the team demonstrating Test Driven Development through Pair programming or Mob Programming. Otherwise the Scrum Master will be like a parent who tell their kids to tie a shoelace without actually demonstrating it to their kids. Or if the Product Owner still has a project mindset, then the Scrum Master needs to teach the Product Owner about effective product management. Or if the User Experience (UX) professionals still do not have a clear idea how to work in the same Sprint with the engineers, then the Scrum Master needs to demonstrate how to implement UX and engineering within the same Sprint without UX working one Sprint ahead.

To improve the Scrum Team's effectiveness oftentimes the Scrum Master needs to offer an alternative. When offering the alternative, the Scrum Master may use the mentoring stance and brings his/her personal experience in applying or implementing those alternative approaches. Oftentimes this requires a technical skill. When leading from the side, as a partner the Scrum Master is failing and succeeding together with the Scrum Team.

Leading from behind

Leading from behind is what servant leadership as coined by Robert Greenleaf is all about. When leading from behind, as written on Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master in an artful way causes the removal of impediments and also removes barriers between stakeholders and Scrum Teams such as politics and bureaucracies. Causing the removal of impediments does not necessarily mean it is the Scrum Master him/herself who needs to remove the impediments. Causing the removal of impediments without the Scrum Master removing it him/herself requires creativity and imagination. Oftentimes, as written on Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master may use coaching or facilitation techniques to cause the impediments to disappear without him/her removing it.

In some context the Scrum Master leads from behind by observing in the background and actively doing nothing. Actively doing nothing does not mean the Scrum Master is not doing anything, it means giving time and space for the system to interact and observing with curiosity before interfering further. Interfering the system may actually be a disservice to the Scrum team and also the organisation. When actively doing nothing, the Scrum Master should not bring his/her own bias and judgement to the Scrum team or the organisation. By actively doing nothing the Scrum Master will be able to understand the context of the organisation and is able to provide relevant advice that will improve the organisation agility and Scrum team effectiveness. Just like coaching, actively doing nothing needs to be used wisely, in an artful and balanced way with the other options that the Scrum Master has under his/her belt. When not used wisely the organisation may see the Scrum Master as useless and not bringing any value to the organisation.

Leading from behind may also involve fighting for the budget from the management to get an external consultant or external trainer that can improve the team technical capabilities if the Scrum Master is not able to give the training the team needs. Leading from behind does not mean the Scrum Master is on the lower status. The Scrum Master does not have any shame when leading from behind because he/she knows his/her self-worth. Leading from behind means the Scrum Master is leading with humility and without any personal agenda. His/her only agenda is to serve the people to be the best version of themselves, which will contribute to the improving organisation agility and Scrum Team effectiveness.


Change from within

To be a true leader, the Scrum Master needs to be humble and genuine. Being a true leader can not be faked. Becoming a true leader requires change from within, it requires a change of character. As someone wise has said, character is who we are when no one is watching. To change one’s character requires continuous mentoring and coaching rather than just attending a one shot training. The Scrum Master needs to transform him/herself before transforming the organisation and the Scrum Team he/she serves.



True leadership is all about balance and knowing from which side the leader should lead at the moment. I personally think that true leadership should not only be an attribute of a Scrum Master. I personally think an awesome Product Owner should also lead from the front, the side and the back. The Scrum Master is a true leader who focuses on making systemic changes so people in the company can thrive while the Product Owner is a true leader who focuses on optimising value for the customers and the business through the product he/she owns. The Scrum Master and the Product Owner are true leaders with different focuses and requires different skill sets.

Thanks for reading this blog folks. Hopefully I will be able to create a video on true leadership once I am settled in Brissy. And hopefully you can inspire people in your team and your organisation to become the best version of themselves after reading this short blog. I personally still have a lot of homework to be a true leader for the Scrum Team. Have a great weekend folks.


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