Scrum Masters and “true” leadership

“True leaders” are for cults; Scrum Masters should continue prioritising servant-leadership and leave the labeling to others

Two men talking to each other in the cockpit of a rocket ship, from Paramount Pictures’ 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact
Two men talking to each other in the cockpit of a rocket ship, from Paramount Pictures’ 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact
Still from Star Trek: First Contact in which two characters discard pompous labels to focus on getting things done

Small change, big word

The Scrum Guide’s recently-released 2020 edition uses fewer words than its 2017 predecessor. At the same time, it’s become more broadly applicable and less prescriptive. No mean feat.

There is, however, one crucial term that I wish had survived this year’s trimming: the Scrum Master’s servant-leadership has been replaced by a far less powerful alternative.

The 2017 edition simply read, “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team.” In the 2020 edition of the guide, Scrum Masters are now rebranded as “true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.”

Who speaks like that?

As I understood from Scrum Guide co-author Jeff Sutherland’s release interview, that change to “true leader” is part of an effort to give Scrum Masters a description that reduces people’s inclination to see them as glorified note-takers.

That might be fine terminology for Sutherland in interviews, but think of Scrum Masters sending colleagues and bosses links to the Scrum Guide to clarify their work. Who says something like that of themselves?

Perhaps best to leave the slapping-on of names like “true leader” to others, or to leave the self-assigning of such labels to people in different lines of work. Say, the dictatorship or cult leading business.

As Star Trek’s Commander William Riker famously said, via fictional warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane, “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man. And let history make its own judgments.”

Why servant-leadership is such a powerful term

Matters of style and humility aside: I think the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, here. The term “Servant-leadership” holds power because it’s an apparent contradictio in terminis. More traditional perceptions of leadership clash with the idea of being of service.

This clash is good, because Scrum Masters (deliberately) don’t fit traditional organisational templates; a boon, given their mission and task description.
Servant-leader Scrum Masters are fallible, provide an example through action, encourage people to use their voice, and help them take their work in their own hands. They shed a light, hold up mirrors, poke their nose wherever they feel it belongs — in service. They facilitate sense-making and decision-making rooted empiricism rather than in spreadsheets.

Scrum Masters’ existence outside traditional hierarchy helps them be effective as change agents. The only leadership they need to exhibit from there, is that of a servant-leader: operating in service of their colleagues by challenging them. And to do that, Scrum Masters need to be peers to everyone.

So, a “true” leader is…

As soon as we leave out the explicit “servant-” adjective and start describing Scrum Masters as “true” leaders, we paint their position with the brush of established leadership notions. Doing so undermines Scrum’s power and lack of hierarchy.

“Servant-leader” has a meaning. “True leader,” by comparison, leaves more room for interpretation and opinion. What, exactly, is a true leader? And what does a false leader look like? Does being a true leader mean you’re above reproach? Am I now more of a true leader than my colleague because I’ve got a certain title? This all sounds like exactly the kind of stuff Scrum (Masters) should help us move away from.

With the mention of “true leaders”, command-and-control-styled organisations can now more easily attribute archaic connotations to the Scrum Master’s leadership. Scrum Masters can help break the old paradigm that leadership is an immutable one-to-many relationship, but that’ll become harder with this new “true” label.

Conclusion

The paradox of servant-leadership fits beautifully with the principles of agility that Scrum Masters should help their organisations uphold. Scrum Masters facilitate their colleagues’ striking of balances in the interest of adaptation.

Whether or not organisations struggle with the subtle reframing of the Scrum Master’s description as much as I do, I will have to inspect. Until I do, I’ll stick to Riker’s advice and leave the judgment to others: I’ll uphold the 2020 edition of the Scrum Guide — sans “true leader” — and continue to aspire to servant-leadership.

Hope you’ll consider doing the same.

Thomas van Zuijlen is a passionate facilitator and an agile practitioner, working as a professional Scrum Master and occasional quiz host. His weekly newsletter on facilitation, agility and development is called 📬 The Backlog.

Facilitator & Scrum Master

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