Servant leadership for the Scrum Masters

Organisations are often puzzled about needed capabilities in a Scrum Master role specially when that organisation is starting to transform their delivery capability and doesn’t have an existing mature internal agile capability. Out of many traits required from Scrum Master, one very important one is Servant Leadership.

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organisation. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. [1]

Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of servant leadership theory states that a Servant leader should be focused on: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”[2]


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. Since this leadership style came about, a number of different organizations have adopted this style as their way of leadership. According to a study done by Sen Sendjaya and James C Sarros, Servant Leadership is being practiced in some of the top-ranking companies today, and these companies are highly ranked because of their leadership style and following.[1]

One of the premise of Agile is an extensive focus on building autonomous high performing agile teams where the teams can self organise to serve their target customer domains. Servant leadership therefore is a style quite suitable to these teams.

Scrum Masters as leaders of agile teams need to develop leadership behaviours aligned with Servant leadership in order to grow their team members. Some of the traits which I have observed in good Scrum Masters and team leaders over the years are as follows:

Listens to and supports team members in decision identification

As a good facilitator, encourages everyone to express their opinions and has a strong attention to hesitant behaviours and body language during team meetings such as stand up, retrospective, planning etc. Helps the teams identify positive and negative changes during retrospectives.

Has strong capability to understand, relate and empathise with others

Works with the team to share their successes such as celebrating every successful demo as well as feels bad about iteration failures. A strong sense of relatedness and empathy helps SM to genuinely becomes part of the team and helps the team to recover from failures through guided reflection.

Encourages and supports the personal development of each individual

Scrum Master encourages continuous team learning through fostering collaborative practices, side by side sessions, specification workshops, short design sessions (design dojos), focused problem solving (pomodoro), continuous integration, collective code ownership etc. Scrum Master helps the team members to develop more T-shaped skillset by encouraging rotation in technical areas of concerns such as functionality, components/layers, role aspects etc. Scrum Master facilitates team decision-making rather than making decisions for the team.

Uses persuation instead of authority

Scrum Master asks questions rather than telling the team what to do. Scrum Master encourages the team to look at decisions from new perspectives, articulates facts (through data, observations), helps the team to see things they may have overlooked and helps them to rethink.

Thinks beyond day-to-day activities

Scrum Master sets long term operating goals for the team, such as: agile practices to master and new skills to acquire. Scrum Master examines what is missing in order to make the environment better for everyone, prioritises improvement activities and makes them happen.

Seeks to help without diminishing the commitment of others

Scrum Master facilitates ad hoc meetings (design discussions, story reviews with the Product Owner, coding and unit testing approaches, critical bug-fix strategies etc.).

Scrum Master helps the team find access to external sources of information: subject matter experts, shared resources (architects, UX designers, tech writers).

Scrum Master helps clarify and articulate rationale behind scope commitments.

Scrum Master helps team members prepare for iteration review and system demo.

Is open and appreciates openness in others

Scrum Master shows appreciation for team members who raise serious issues even when delivery is jeopardised. Scrum Master will always encourages and facilitates open communication among team members and with external colleagues. Scrum Master encourages healthy conflict during team meetings and gives open and honest opinions.


  1. Sendjaya, Sen; Sarros, James C. (2002-09-01). “Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations”. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 9 (2): 57–64. doi:10.1177/107179190200900205.
  2. Robert K. Greenleaf, Larry C. Spears (2002). “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness” Paulist Press; 25th Anniversary Edition

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