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The Leadership Challenge

In projects that are implementing Scrum, the role of the Scrum Master, who facilitates the team to achieve the end goal of the product owner, is very crucial. The Scrum Master focuses on ensuring that any impediments and road blocks faced by the team are removed, and he or she ensures that the core focus of the team is on developing the product/service for the customer. Thus, he is in effect practicing “Servant Leadership1,2”, where the focus is on giving attention to the needs of the team members and those they serve (customer). It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization’s business objectives.

Servant Leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership, coined and defined by Robert K. Greenleaf. He never specifically defined servant leadership but, based on the writings of Greenleaf; it is defined as a management philosophy which implies a holistic view of the quality of people, work and community spirit. A servant leader is someone who is servant first and who contributes to the well-being of people and community. A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development. He places his main focus on people, because only content and motivated people are able to reach their targets and fulfill the set and unstated expectations.

Software development is complex and the cleverest9 and most creative people in your organisation don’t want to be led or managed. In an increasingly cut-throat and competitive market place, it is imperative to hire talented people – knowledge workers – these are workers who interact with knowledge and data to generate value for the customer and the nature of work is not repetitive but innovative and creative and it varies from simple to complex depending on the nature of work involved – in order to be competitive and innovate in the marketplace.  In order to get the best out of these people, a different form of leadership is required.

However anxious you may be to ensure that the work needs to be completed, it has to be understood that you don’t try to tell the knowledge workers what to do and how to do it.  This is on account of the fact that the specific work task itself may not always be well defined or clear. Knowledge workers need to have autonomy and discretion over how to perform work tasks; they are frequently given a desired outcome or result and asked to decide for themselves how to make it happen. Part of the job is to figure out what work needs to be done and how to go about doing it. As a leader may not have the time to be acquainted with exactly what is to be done to get the specific work task completed, it is better to let the knowledge worker himself or herself decide how to complete the work task. The focus should thus be on the outcome (goal) rather than on specific steps. Hence, a better technique is to set a clear goal that excites and motivates them by explaining the importance and benefit of achieving it within the given constraints and providing the appropriate support through facilitation. Your role as a Scrum Master is to inspire and guide the knowledge workers on your team but not to manage them.

This leads to a paradox – How are we supposed to not manage the team but at the same time ensure that the work gets completed within the committed timelines to ensure customer satisfaction and also make sure that the team stays motivated? Here is where the practice of Servant Leadership comes into the picture. In many places, the word is bandied about without much thought and focus given to how a servant leader ought to lead the team and the term remains somewhat hazy for many people.

When referring to the overall skill set of the Scrum Master, one of the skills as listed previously is Servant Leadership. This is the most important quality of a Scrum Master. The other characteristics that are also needed are skills like communication, maturity and empathy. Servant Leadership is generally listed way down the total set of skills that a Scrum Master ought to possess or sometimes it is not listed at all. This is mainly due to the fact that a majority of the people (Members identifying individuals for the role of Scrum Master and the individuals themselves) are not clear about what Servant Leadership actually means.

The Servant Leader is someone who seeks to draw out, inspire and develop the best qualities in a person from the inside out. Servant Leadership leads to a new form of inspiration – a sense of vision to which people are drawn and united which enables them to be driven by internal motivation toward achieving a common purpose.

Transferring Leadership to the Team

How do you move, then, from a group of individuals to a cohesive team unit? It takes a Scrum Master who is willing and able to be a servant leader, and who can help the team members overcome the obstacles that make self-organization so difficult. Some of these obstacles are – the inability of teams to respond to change, members not able to adapt to the self organizing nature of the team and who require constant guidance, incomplete understanding of self organization by the Senior Management and lack of support by them for this phenomenon to occur and the inability to give up control by the key members of the team.

Self-organization12 is a process of attraction and repulsion in which the internal organization of a system, normally an open system, increases in complexity without being guided or managed by an outside source. Self-organizing systems typically (though not always) display emergent properties. A key characteristic that is generally missed is that “something is self-organizing if, left to itself, it tends to become more organized.” A team would not inherently become more organized if left “totally” on its own. Without proper leadership or an organization structure that does not support self-organizing teams, this would not be possible.

The Servant Leader

On a Scrum team, this leader is the Scrum Master. A Scrum Master is a servant leader¾one 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. The Scrum Master is considered as - primus inter pares13 among the members of the team, especially when he is a technical member working as part of the team. Primus Inter Pares means first among equals or first among peers. It is intended to project mutual respect and comradery. The importance of a culture of primus inter pares is that it provides a greater degree of openness for relationships to develop. People are freer to exchange ideas.

Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization's resources: human, financial and physical.

The essential quality that sets servant leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience – the moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. This is the key quality that highlights the difference between leadership that works and leadership that endures. In leadership that works, the ends may justify the means; however, in leadership that endures, the ends do not always justify the means. The key aspect is the focus on what is right and what is wrong and ensuring that the leader lives by his conscience.

However, in reality, based on the organizational structure and the market conditions, this is a very difficult quality to adopt and it cannot be practiced so easily when a lot of factors conspire to ensure that the Scrum Master stays absorbed in his daily activities and cannot rise above the humdrum of his daily work to focus on the higher level of perception that is so necessary to ensure that he performs the true role of a Servant Leader.

Moral authority3 is another way to define Servant Leadership as it represents a reciprocal choice between the leader and the follower. As people are uniquely endowed with the power and freedom to choose, they have natural authority over all other types of creation.

Natural authority14 is the ability to control nature – land, plants and animals. We cannot control nature in that it does our bidding. What it means is that we have dominion over the natural world and we have to use nature to provide for and protect ourselves. However, part of having natural authority means using our resources wisely. While the earth is available for our benefit, it will not always be useful if we do not learn how to take care of it.

Moral authority comes from the principled use of this natural power and the freedom to choose. When a leader lives by his conscience, people feel trust and confidence in him.

As Stephen Covey3,8 says – If the Leader is principle centered, he or she will develop moral authority. If the follower is principle centered, he or she will follow the leader. In this aspect, both the leader and the followers are followers as they follow the truth, i.e. they both follow natural law and principles and a common agreed upon shared vision.

Natural law15 or the law of nature is a system of law which is determined by nature and thus universal. Natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature -- both social and personal -- and deduce binding rules of moral behavior.

They share values and grow to trust one another. Thus, moral authority is mutually developed and shared. This explains why trust is the most important factor in the systemic environment that enables the Servant Leader to perform his duties at the highest level.

However, Servant leadership by itself is an old concept. In the ancient Hindu text4,5, Arthashastra, Chanakya commented in the 4th century B.C.: The king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]”. “The king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

Servant leadership focuses on collaboration, trust, empathy, and the usage of power ethically. The servant leader’s objective is to enhance and increase teamwork and personal involvement.

Let me explain this abstract concept with an example observed in nature –

Dolphins6,7 are believed to be among the most intelligent of all mammals. They are considered to be one of the most efficient and effective communicators in the animal world. Dolphins exhibit high levels of cognitive functioning. They constantly amaze us with their eagerness and ability to learn new things and to solve problems.

Dolphins are social animals, which live in pods (also called "schools") of up to a dozen animals. In places with a high abundance of food, schools can join temporarily, forming an aggregation called a super pod; such groupings may exceed 1000 dolphins. The individuals communicate using a variety of clicks, whistles and other vocalizations. The animals establish strong bonds with each other within a pod. The leader of the dolphin pod ensures that all the dolphins are in sync with each other and he ensures that a member of the pod stays with the injured or ill animals for support.

They swim in herds and move through the sea in schools or pods/super pods with several hundred dolphins, coordinating their movement so that they hop out of the water and dive back in unison. The leader of the pod performs the role of the servant leader by facilitating the members of the pod in reaching their goal effectively. There have also been reported instances of dolphins rescuing humans stranded in the sea from predators like sharks; such actions further embody the spirit of servant leadership.

Like dolphins, teams who share a common direction and a sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily than those who try to do it alone. These teams understand that their success depends on working as a team, taking turns doing the hard tasks, and sharing leadership. They too learn to encourage other team members and they, like dolphins, feel responsibility towards each other when things are going badly.


In our daily life, it is very difficult for the Scrum Master to constantly ensure that all the team members work together cohesively to achieve the final delivery for the customer, as people have complex personalities.

The Scrum Master is constantly handling various issues that arise during his daily work in order to ensure that he helps the team to remove or overcome the roadblocks faced by the team on a daily basis.

However, if he keeps in mind the role of a Servant Leader while doing his work, he will be better able to keep the team members motivated toward the goal, which will lead to better customer satisfaction in the end.

Larry C. Spears1, who served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has highlighted the following traits that are central to the development of the servant leadership ethos in an individual –

  • Commitment to the growth of people: A servant leader is convinced that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contributions as workers. Therefore, he or she should nurture the personal, professional and spiritual growth of employees. For example, he spends funds and resources for the personal and professional growth of the people who make up the organization. The servant leader will also encourage the ideas of everyone and involve workers in decision making.
  • Building community: A servant leader identifies means to build a strong community within his organization and wants to develop a true community among businesses and institutions.
  • Healing: A servant leader tries to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, because he wants to encourage and support the personal development of each individual. This leads to the formation of a business culture, in which the working environment is dynamic, fun and free of the fear of failure.
  • Listening: He listens actively to subordinates and supports them. The servant leader particularly needs to pay attention to what remains unspoken in the management setting. This means relying on his inner voice in order to find out what the body, mind and spirit are communicating.
  • Empathy: A servant leader attempts to understand and empathize with others. Workers may be considered not only as employees, but also as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development. As a result, leadership is seen as a special type of human work, which ultimately generates a competitive advantage for the business.
  • Awareness: A servant leader needs to gain general awareness and especially self-awareness. He has the ability to view situations from a more integrated, holistic position. As a result, he gets a better understanding about ethics and values.
  • Persuasion: A Servant Leader does not take advantage of their power and status by coercing compliance; they rather try to convince those they manage.
  • Conceptualization: A servant leader thinks beyond day-to-day realities. That means he has the ability to see beyond the limits of the operating business and also focuses on long term operating goals.
  • Foresight: Foresight is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It enables the servant leader to learn about the past and to achieve a better understanding about the current reality. It also enables the servant leader to identify consequences about the future. This characteristic is also closely related to conceptualization.
  • Stewardship: CEOs, staffs and trustees have the task to hold their institution in trust for the greater good of society.

In conclusion, servant leadership is seen as an obligation to help and serve others. Openness and persuasion are more important than control. This aspect will be difficult for the leader to sustain in a competitive environment where the goals need to be fulfilled under the most difficult circumstances. However, the servant leader has to find the appropriate trade-off so that he has a clear conscience while carrying out his work and duties for the greater good of the organization and society.

In contrast, if he follows the traditional role of a Manager in trying to ensure that he gets the work done, then it may work out in the short term but in the long term, he should not be surprised if he finds himself staring at this question at the end of the day when things don’t work out or things turn out badly and the customer is dissatisfied – Who cooked my Goose!.

This does not imply that Servant Leadership is the only way and the correct way to do the work. It however highlights the fact that in a complex adaptive system (which is the nature of software development); optimal and effective work gets done if trust, motivation and inspiration are present in the systemic environment and what better way to achieve this than Servant Leadership? This leads to the highest level of customer satisfaction which is what the Scrum Master is aspiring to achieve in the end by facilitating and inspiring his team to deliver a product of the highest quality to the customer within the given constraints and other mutually agreed upon parameters.

This also has a direct correlation with the Values and Principles as expounded in the Agile Manifesto16. A key value of the manifesto – Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools highlights the focus on individuals and interactions and which is embodied by the servant leadership role where the focus on individuals is paramount.

A key Principle17 of the Agile Manifesto – “Build projects around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done” is again directly correlated with the servant leadership role which is committed to the growth of the people and the focus on empathy which enhances the competitive advantage.

About the Author

Badri N Srinivasan is working as Head of Quality/Agile Coach and Agile Trainer for Valtech India Systems Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, India. He has extensive experience in process implementation and organizational change management processes and process improvement initiatives in the travel, retail, manufacturing, real estate, mortgage, banking and financial services domains. He is a Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Six Sigma Green Belt (SSGB).



1. Servant Leadership 

2. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

3. Servant Leadership – Robert K Greenleaf, ISBN 81-7809-221-2

4. Arthashastra

5. Kautilya: The Arthashastra. L.N. Rangarajan (Ed., Rearranger & Translator), 1992, Penguin Classics, India. ISBN 0-14-044603-6.

6. DOLPHIN RESEARCH CENTER, 58901 Overseas Highway, Grassy Key, FL 33050-6019 305-289-1121, 

7. How Do Dolphins Behave?

8. Principle Centred Leadership – Dr. Stephen Covey, ISBN 978-0-6848-5841-8

9. Clever – Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, ISBN 978-1-4221-2296-9

10. Cognitive Edge

11. Abilene Paradox and Team Collaboration – Badri N Srinivasan, Agile Record Magazine, Jul 2010

12. Self-organization

13. Primus Inter Pares

14. It's Your Life Take Authority: A Spiritual Guide For Your Life – Angela Hood, ISBN -13: 978-1438986166

15. Natural Law 

16. The Agile Manifesto

17. Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto

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