While coaching and training people on Scrum I meet many Scrum Masters or aspiring Scrum Masters. Each of which being their own set of expectations and foibles. Regardless each Scrum Master has history that influences how they approach the role. For example, former Project Managers will bring an action oriented approach, while former developers will bring technical baggage.

Rather painfully I have seen Scrum Masters kick off a planning meeting, declare that the team are self organising and then disappear for coffee. Leaving the team flustered and to manage the best the can. In contrast I have also seen Scrum Masters kick off events with vibrant improv games, the team all standing wooshing and zapping. There are Scrum Masters who stand front and centre of their daily scrum while others stand at the back

The Scrum Master role is define in scrum guide as:

“The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximise the value created by the Scrum Team.”


The Scrum guide immediately uses the phrase servant-leader. The idea of the servant leader was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970’s. He described it as:

“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. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

One of the things the surprises me is that while the Scrum guide mentions it, and therefore defacto mentions in Scrum Master training there seems to me, little attention payed to explaining how the Scrum Master becomes a servant leader.

In a traditional project environment the project manager is thought to be the one who is responsible for the work and the team are expected to deliver what the PM delegates or assigns to each team member. Team members can still have empowerment in this environment but the constraints within which they operate tend to be narrow. Additionally roadblocks are typically managed via RAID logs that are also owned by the PM.

On the other hand the servant leader Scrum Master is there to help the team achieve their goals. Note the focus is on helping the team rather than directing and managing.

Ken Blanchard created the useful SERVE acronym to describe servant leader ship:

See the future – what is the vision, purpose and values of the team?

Engage and Develop people – What are the characteristics that make a great team? Is everyone fully engaged? How are you developing your team?

Reinvent Continuously – Enhance your own knowledge. Improve systems and processes. Evolve the structure of the team.

Value Results & Relationships – Value each equally.

Embody the Values – All leadership is built on trust.

Here are a dozen ideas you can try to help you become a better servant leader.

  1. Create a vision for the team or product
  2. Agree the values of the team
  3. Create a list of characteristics of great team members and share with recruiters/HR
  4. Encourage pair working
  5. Run a lean coffee session
  6. Create a backlog of ideas to investigate
  7. Find mentors
  8. Map your processes
  9. Map the skills of the team
  10. Draw up the teams circle of influence and try to expand it a little each week
  11. Recognise and reward the team for embodying the values, encourage them to do it to each other.
  12. Make everything visible on a Information radiator

A final note. The best Scrum Masters I have worked with are humble. They are always seeking to improve how they are working with their team, organisation and thier profession. They dont let their ego get in the way and realise that ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere. Indeed when I coach Scrum Masters i have noticed that the better ones seek out more coaching and opportunities to bounce ideas, while weak ones avoid and shy away from coaching.

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