Scrum Master Misunderstood

The majority of the texts on Scrum describe Scrum Masters as a shepherd or protector of the team. You’ll often hear the ‘servant leader’ buzz term associated with Scrum Master. Of the three major roles in Scrum, the Scrum Master is often the most misinterpreted. I believe this stems from a failure to understand servant leadership combined with an organization’s knack for placing the wrong personnel in that role.


Servant Leadership

The term servant leader contains a very profound history. The term leaves the lips of many in organizations, but they know little of its true nature. To understand the term, lets examine its origins. The idea of the servant leader reaches as far back as fifth-century BC; during this period Lao-Tzu, the Father of Taoism, planted the seeds of the modern day definition of servant leader:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware… The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf brought this ideology into the modern world in his paper, The Servant as a Leader. In it he states:

The servant leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… (vs. one who is leader first…) … The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those who served grow as persons … (and become) more likely themselves to become servants?

Organizations have not wrapped their heads around this concept. The possibility of losing control and power strikes fear into the hearts of those in leadership today. In the software development industry the command and control model is slowly crumbling, as evidenced by the increase of agile transformations across the globe. Rather than swing from one end of the spectrum to the opposite, I propose organizations find some ground near the middle.

In his book, Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, David Marquet describes an unorthodox approach he took with an underperforming crew; his model was contrary to the Navy’s traditional command and control, but he gained the trust of his superiors to try it on his crew. David implemented a system of ‘Intent Based Leadership’ that aimed at creating leaders throughout his crew. His implementation was a success, and it created a sense of ownership, accountability, and pride. In this model, a captain still exists; instead of focusing on giving orders on how to execute tasks or solve problems, the captain allows the crew to pull their training together and solve the problem as a team. The captain is there to facilitate and guide the crew/team to the solution, not provide it directly. The ultimate goal is to grow your team, so its members can excel both personally and professionally- self organization.


Who Gets to be a Scrum Master?

Welcome to the pitfall question facing most organizations today. In the face of transforming roles and job titles, organizations resort to filling Scrum Masters with traditional jobs- project managers, tech leads, architects, supervisors, etc. Based on what we discussed above, placing someone in a Scrum Master role because they can drive teams on a schedule, create beautiful technical designs, or write outstanding performance evaluations is far from the correct criteria. Recall, Scrum Masters have no true authority on a team. Electing an individual that shows strong authoritative characteristics may prove disastrous for the team and individual. Some of the desired characteristics of a Scrum Master include (add these to the lists you’ll find on the internet):

  • Introduces opportunities of growth for the team
  • Mentors the team in its practice of Scrum
  • Leads the team to solve challenges on their own
  • Rather than rely on metrics, intuitively understands the needs of the team and make adjustments where necessary

None of the above contain directive attributes- very different from command and control leadership. Most other authorities on Scrum will provide the same attributes. A good Scrum Master successfully battles the temptation to take the wheel and change course; instead, he/she is masterful (pun intended) at guiding the team to the conclusion that a change of course might be necessary. In summary, the Scrum Master embodies the visions of Lao-Tzu, Greenleaf, and Marquet. In order for a team to grow, they must take the wheel and lead.


Closing Thoughts

It will take some time before the Scrum Master role is understood by the majority. Servant leadership is a concept that is difficult to grasp in a society that glorifies the command and control model. Organizations that practice or intend to practice Scrum must carefully evaluate the criteria for Scrum Masters before blindly appointing candidates. The old leadership mold doesn’t fit in the software development industry. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but the agile frameworks, such as Scrum, cannot function healthily without it.




Marquet, L. David. Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. New York: Portfolio, 2012. Print.

Greenleaf, Robert K. The Servant as Leader. Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991. Print.

Heskett, James. “Why Isn’t Servant Leadership More Prevalent?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 1 May 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.