What Part of ‘Be a Servant Leader’ Don’t You Understand?

As a Scrum Master, it is frustrating to see so many people misunderstand the accountability. You are not a task master. You are not micromanager. The main descriptor of the Scrum Master accountability is to be a servant leader, which means serving the needs of the Scrum team and leading them to success by guiding them to the best behaviors using encouragement and introspection. Unfortunately, some Scrum Masters think that as long as the end results of ensuring projects are delivered on time, it doesn’t matter about having good working relationships with the development team. This is wrong. If you have this mentality, you are yourself an impediment to your team’s success.

Let me be clear: this kind of thinking is not only wrong but also detrimental to the overall success of the team. While it is true that the responsibility of the career and technical development of the developer may fall on the developer and their manager, the Scrum Master helps to encourage the team to grow as a whole and that involves being human and treating members as humans, not code monkeys clacking away at their keyboards until they satisfy demands. The same is true in many other work settings.

Let me give you an example from my early career prior to tech, when I was a new dispatcher for a medium-sized trucking company. The fleet I was assigned to dispatch was seen as a “bad” fleet who never did anything they were told and never helped to cover loads that needed covered. It was nerve-wracking to hear all the negative things everybody warned me about them, but when I hit the desk I simply treated each truck driver with respect and made sure that I would look out for their freight needs and their wants as best as I could. The result was a transformed fleet of drivers who were now among the most reliable fleets in the company, and guess what – they were much happier and more pleasant to deal with because of it. They made my life easier and I made theirs easier as well. Everybody won.

I have taken these same principles of treating people as equals and with respect into my Agile career, and guess what? Work is not only delivered with reliable predictability, the developers actually tend to like to come to work every day. With the constantly shifting market trends, do I really need to explain how dangerous loss of knowledge is to an organization, when some of these workers start leaving simply because it sucks to log in to work every day?

As a Scrum Master, the ultimate goal is to lead your team to become a high performing team. They may be successful on paper if you treat them like code monkeys, but are you really helping them become the best team they can be? You must be a servant leader for the team. This means serving the needs of the Scrum team by helping them to remove any obstacles that may be hindering their progress, including inter-personal problems between developers, and guiding them to better behaviors that will lead to a more cohesive team. It’s NOT just the job of the developers’ manager to make sure they have a good environment in which to work.

Some Scrum Masters forget that they are supposed to be serving the team, not the other way around. Ignoring the happiness of the team and tending to their growth as a unit, these “Project Manager” style Scrum Masters become micromanagers, focusing only on task completion rather than the human element of working together. This approach is a great way to create a toxic work environment where team members feel undervalued and unappreciated and spend half their time looking for a job. A well-oiled and maintained machine doesn’t grind itself down; there is far less motivation to leave an organization if you genuinely enjoy working with the people around you.

To be a successful Scrum Master, one must understand that the Scrum framework is all about collaboration and teamwork. A Scrum Master must work to foster an environment where team members feel empowered and inspired to do their best work. They must encourage open communication, trust, and collaboration among the team members, and they must be a resource for the team whenever they need support or guidance. In short: a Scrum Master leads through inspiration rather than through fear.

Don’t just take it from me. Here’s a quick snippet from scrum.org about this exact topic:

The Accountabilities of the Scrum Master

The role of the Scrum Master has a lot of layers and facets to it. While building awareness around Scrum and enabling greater agility, Scrum Masters also need soft skills that are needed to coach and mentor members of the Scrum Team and others in the organization. Scrum Masters are accountable for helping their teams succeed, and that often means offering them assistance in groups or on a one-on-one basis. They may facilitate exercises, give guidance or help people come to conclusions on their own. Not everyone has the skills necessary to be a Scrum Master, and that is important to keep in mind when considering this career path.

In the end, the Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness as they help the Scrum Team to improve how the team works together to create value on an ongoing basis.

via scrum.org

Ultimately, the success of a Scrum Master is measured not only by the output of the team. While the Scrum Master must be keenly aware of the goals set by the organization for their teams, they aren’t there to tell them how to get the work done. They must identify and encourage the strengths of the individuals of the team so that they can work better together.

Even a bad Scrum Master can be a part of a Scrum Team that outputs a lot of work. The individuals on the team could all be bright developers who churn through user stories. The questions I have for these developers is this: Do you take personal stake in every backlog item on the board, even when it’s not your area of expertise? How often do you swarm on your work with team mates? How often do you share knowledge with each others? Do you enjoy working with your teammates? Are you really a team, or are you just a group of people working separately in the same space?

In short, and especially as the new generations enter the workforce, a Scrum Team doesn’t need or want a Project Manager. What they need is a person who is willing to go the extra mile to help them work better together to bring out their individual strengths and group synergy. By doing this, a good Scrum Master will enable the team to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming high performing together.

So, take a step back, drill sergeant. Instead of telling your team what they need to do and when they need to do it, ask your team how they would like to work together to tackle problems, and how you might be of service to them. Your accountability may be called Scrum Master, but to your team, you must be a relentlessly dedicated servant leader first.

1 thought on “What Part of ‘Be a Servant Leader’ Don’t You Understand?”

  1. What a wonderful way to look at this. Treating everyone with respect and care is the key to success, in business and in a family.

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