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The Scrum Master is a servant leader

    The Scrum Master as a servant leader in Scrum is one of the most important and often misunderstood roles. The creators of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, recognized that change is hard and in order for teams to be able to effectively transition to a new way of working (adopting Scrum) help was required in terms of coaching and support. So the Scrum Master role was born.

    This role has no expectations of doing the work that the team needs to do. Neither should this role be a secretary of the team and do all sort of minute tasks like managing calendar invites or updating Jira cards. All this should be considered work and someone on the team should take care of it. Instead, the Scrum Master role should guide the team in adopting Scrum, becoming more productive, and improving the quality of the work (intended as the quality of the work delivered by the team, and also the quality of the work environment in which the team operates).

    The Scrum Master also has no authority on the team, at least no direct authority. They can’t force anyone to do something or control how they do it. Instead, they lead by influence, they create the conditions for the team to become more effective, and provide advice through coaching. In essence, the Scrum Master is a servant leader to the team.

    Servant leadership

    In his book “Servant Leadership”, Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept of the leader not as the authority on the other people, but rather as a servant to them. The goal of the servant leader is to elevate the team and create the conditions for the team to thrive. As a result, the team will deliver better results, and as a consequence the company or organization will succeed.

    When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they benefit as well as their employees in that their employees acquire personal growth, while the organization grows as well due to the employees growing commitment and engagement.

    I like to compare traditional command-and-control to servant leadership using two drawings:

    Command-and-control leadership versus servant leadership

    On the left is the traditional view of command-and-control leadership. The leader is in an authority position compared to the team and he or she imparts commands. Normally, the team executes the directives coming from the leader, and there is little room for experimentation, personal growth, or failure.

    On the right is a servant leader who elevates their team by serving its members. Their goal is to help the team grow – as a unit and also as individuals. In doing so, the performance and the results improve benefiting everyone, including the leader. The team is empowered to experiment, to find ways for improvement, and to learn from failure.

    The test for servant leadership is as simple as it is powerful:


    Traits of a servant leader

    A servant leader does not use command-and-control and may not have positional authority over the people they serve. Their goal is to help, guide, and support the team in achieving the goal. They do this by leading through influence using a variety of skills:

    • Listening to understand
    • Empathy for problems and needs
    • Awareness of environment, conditions, situations, and problems
    • Influence rather than authority or coercion
    • Generalize a problem that may be solved for multiple people or teams
    • Foster community with the people being served and with other servant leaders
    • Earn trust and respect of those they interact with
    • Embody strong ethical values and the Scrum values of Focus, Openness, Respect, Courage, and Commitment

    To learn about servant leadership, visit or read the book “Servant Leadership” by Robert Greenleaf

    The role of the Scrum Master as servant leader

    A Servant Leader manages a team not by telling them what to do, but by removing impediments that get in their way and by coaching them on how to improve. The Scrum Master has a similar role in Scrum. They help the team identify and remove impediments and they coach team members in Agile and Scrum best practices.

    The Scrum Master is a servant leader for the Developers on the Scrum Team, for the Product Owner, and for the Organization. The following points are freely elaborated from the Scrum Guide:

    Service to the Scrum Team

    The Scrum Master covers the following responsibilities towards the Developers and the Scrum Team overall:

    • Help the team identify and remove impediments
    • Coach Scrum and guide in adopting Scrum and Agile practices
    • Coach on methods and techniques to improve quality of work delivered and engineering practices
    • Coach in self-organization, self-management, and cross-functionality
    • Help the team improve team productivity, effectiveness, and happiness
    • Help in creating a strong Definition of Done
    • Facilitate Scrum events as needed to help the team achieve the objective of the event
    • Help the team improve as a unit and as individuals, fostering personal and professional growth, and protecting the team from external disruption

    Service to the Product Owner

    The Scrum Master covers the following responsibilities towards the Product Owner:

    • Ensure that the PO shares context and vision with everyone on the Scrum team
    • Help the PO make the product backlog visible, ordered, dynamic, and clear to all
    • Help the PO learn techniques for effective product backlog management
    • Understand the importance of clearly understood, refined, and shared work items
    • Share priorities of the product backlog and reasons behind them
    • Coach the PO on techniques to properly learn about customer needs and reflect these in product backlog

    Service to the Organization

    The Scrum Master covers the following responsibilities towards the rest of the Organization:

    • Coach stakeholders and the rest of the organization in adopting and supporting Scrum
    • Coach everyone involved with the product development effort on the value of incremental and iterative product development
    • Drive change and help organizational impediments get removed in order to increase the productivity of the team
    • Work with other Scrum Masters to coordinate change and increase the effectiveness of Scrum across the organization
    • Explain to the organization how to support the team and remove impediments to the team
    • Help the organization transition traditional roles in Project Management to roles in Scrum/Agile
    • Coach stakeholders on the importance of attending Sprint Reviews and of actively providing feedback to the team
    • Guide the organization in the definition of roles, policies, incentive plans, performance reviews that support the adoption of Scrum/Agile
    • Help teams with the support needed to effectively work together and collaborate whether co-located or remotely distributed

    The Scrum Master’s dark side

    There are many things that Scrum Masters do. Some help the team to grow as a self-organizing and productive team. Others may reduce their effectiveness.

    In this article we discuss typical anti-patterns and provide tips on how to be an effective servant leader to your team: