You might have heard the role of Scrum Master being referred to as one of servant leadership. But what does that actually mean? And what does it mean for you and your team?

What does it mean to be a servant leader and how can you use the philosophy to improve your project environment and boost your team’s success.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership has been around for years, but the phrase ‘servant leadership’ was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he published in 1970. Called The Servant as Leader, he explained that it’s the natural inclination in a leader that the first objective is to serve. From there comes the aspiration to lead.

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong,” he wrote. “While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Why Do Scrum Masters Need To Act As Servant Leaders?

One of the fundamentals of Agile approaches is that of self-organizing teams. There is very little talk of hierarchy and the traditional role of the manager in Agile literature. Scrum Master is a privileged position on the team, but if you are in that role you are definitely not the boss.

Leadership in this environment has to take on slightly different characteristics to what you might see elsewhere. A leader in a military environment directs the effort as well as inspiring the team. Business leaders in a range of fields appear on the news setting the vision for their organizations, defining timescales for new releases and talking about what their teams will do in the future.

As a Scrum Master, you can’t do that.

Your leadership role has to start from a place of equality with the rest of the team. You don’t allocate work to anyone. You don’t set the team’s priorities. You can’t pull rank if the situation demands – you have no rank to pull.

This is where servant leadership, if you choose to accept it as a principle, offers the opportunity to work collaboratively and effectively with your colleagues.

What Does A Servant Leader Do?

A servant leader aims to help the team. He or she focuses on what the team needs right now. He helps them through problems, facilitating discussions and uncovering the root cause of issues so that they can be effectively addressed.

In an Agile team, a servant leader looks for roadblocks and impediments that are preventing the team from doing their best work and facilitates a resolution that leads to enabling the project to progress. The success of the team is paramount, more than organizational politics or personal ambition.

Quick Tips for Scrum Masters

So what does all this mean in practice? Here are some quick tips to help you develop your servant leadership capabilities as a Scrum Master.

1. Listen

You can’t help the team if you don’t know where the problems are. Be attentive in stand-ups. Listen to the challenges raised in planning sessions. Pay particular attention in retrospectives. These are the times that you can pick up on what is holding the team back.

2. Spot Conflict

Your aim as a servant leader Scrum Master is to help the team grow. You can do this by watching out for conflict. Some conflict on a team is natural, healthy and to be expected. Learn to distinguish that from the destructive type of conflict that will send your team spiraling towards an unsatisfactory ending. When you spot conflict, act quickly to help the individuals concerned resolve it.

3. Look for Trends

What is happening today that might be part of a trend? Is the behavior good or bad? Should this trend continue or stop? Perhaps you need to take the advice of the team on that. A good Scrum Master should be looking out for patterns and interpreting what they mean. Seek out the data that supports the trend and do the analysis, collectively, if you need to, in order to establish what’s going on.

4. Build the Team

Don’t ignore traditional team building activities. Just ‘being Agile’ doesn’t give everyone enough in common with the rest of the team to move through Bruce Tuckman’s stages of team development (that’s the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing cycle you’ve probably heard of). Think about how you can help form greater bonds between team members. How can you develop a sense of community in the team? Of shared values and trust? Can you work with other Scrum Masters outside your immediate team to do the same across the whole of the Agile organization?

5. Identify Skill Gaps

As the Scrum Master you are ideally placed to spot gaps in the skills of people on the team. Watch for the developer who always chooses to work on the same type of task. Look for the tester who doesn’t have much confidence using the automated testing tools. Be on the alert for the things people don’t say about their skills: not everyone is going to be happy confessing to not knowing something, so find an opportunity to talk to them about what you see. The Scrum Master role is responsible for team development, both in the processes of Agile but also more widely. What can you do to multi-skill the team? How can you help them grow into being able to take on more complex work?

Becoming a servant leader is a journey. It’s a mindset change, and while for many people it comes naturally, for others it might take a little work. What’s most important is that you move away from being ‘Scrum Master as leader’ and move towards ‘Scrum Master as servant leader’. That’s the best way to serve your team and to continue to deliver successful results in a positive and supportive environment.

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