Being a Servant Leader is HARSH – ScrumMasters Who Don’t Believe in Servant Leadership

In one of my Agile workshops with a client recently I had one of the most revealing exercises around the term “Servant Leadership” to a bunch of ScrumMasters.

Almost all of my participants in the workshop (about 8 people) had never previously heard of the term “servant leader.” I asked the group what feelings they had around the term. Their responses sent chills up my spine…


“I don’t like the term. At our company this isn’t acceptable.”

“When I think about the words, I don’t like it. The word ‘servant’ turns me off.’

“We don’t use those words here. It doesn’t fit into our culture.”

I had known that the client environment was a place of fear. A place where mistakes were not acceptable, and management was very controlling. I had no idea of the toll it had taken on their employees.

ScrumMasters who don’t believe in servant leadership

The fact is: If your… catalysts for positive change (i.e. YOUR SCRUMMASTERS) do not believe in servant leadership, you’re pretty much screwed… well. Not really. There is potential for this to change… but it will be a very hard, long, and up-hill battle with the entire system.

What was so revealing to me was that the ScrumMaster’s responses were so indicative of the cultural dysfunctions at play.

When your ScrumMasters say they don’t believe in servant leadership… it’s time to look in the mirror and really reflect on your company culture.

12 Replies to “Being a Servant Leader is HARSH – ScrumMasters Who Don’t Believe in Servant Leadership”

  1. I fear, you’re absolutely right. As long as fear is the main driver within an organization it’s really hard to create trust and transparency. Learning and improving becomes nearly impossible because to learn you’ve to make mistakes. And that is not accepted in such environments.

  2. I’m not surprised that they weren’t aware of Servant Leadership. It isn’t part of the CSM core curriculum, nor anything that is normally taught through standard educational forums.

    The reactions without a doubt are scary, but I would imagine that 90% of organizations would have a culture that would react the same way.

    There is a reason STOOS was created in the first place. There is a reason why it and many other movements (Radical Management, Rightshifting, etc) are having trouble getting traction.

    This command and control culture is thousands of years old, deeply embedded and re-enforced as we grow up by both our parents and teachers. Only when our parenting and educational styles change will we see a dramatic shift back to critical thinking and consequently other ways to get results.

  3. Servant leadership as a skill set is also not listed in the key skills required from a ScrumMaster in many places and even if it is listed, it is way down the list of key skills required. Hence, as you correctly said, when scrummasters don’t believe in servant leadership, it is a direct reflection of the corporate culture that impedes an environment that should nurture trust and openness in the organization. However, as Deming said – Survival is not mandatory and if the reality is ignored, the consequences can lead to difficult circumstances for the organization…..

  4. Hi Peter,

    Looks like you have a bit of work ahead of you with this team / org but I’m sure you’re up to it. 🙂

    There are organisations out there who are even hiring for ScrumMasters and don’t seem to understand what the role entails. Sure the job ad talks about all the typical things standups, retrospectives, sprint planning etc but the rest of the ad seems to miss the point completely on the attitudes and abilities that are required.

    A great talk that dovetails well with this blog post is this one by Ilan Goldstein at this year’s Agile Australia 2012 conference. He covers servant leadership and also has a hilarious look at some real job ads for ScrumMasters.


  5. Servant Leadership is a management-buzz-word-term popularized in 1990s by Christian-leadership mentors; so if your culture at work is not aware of where these “Jesus” parables (ie other faiths or secular workforce) you might have trouble explaining how the Leader is also a Servant. But try your own new words. Trail-maintenace-crew… Because that’s the paradox.

    1. Appreciate the comment.
      I would actually see the “servant leadership” as non-religious. The reason being is that I think we can all agree that we find more fulfillment in our work when we “help” or “serve” others. Of course, you can look at psychological surveys on this… they say the same truth ———- We feel better when we help others.

      I would also say that the best manager you probably ever had was one that was command and control… … … or not. Probably he or she helped mentor and grow you as an employee. <------ That's true leadership. What I think the term "servant leadership" needs, is more explanation to an audience. If we get caught up in whether an idea came from religion or not and write it off as useless because it's genesis was religion... then that's losing an opportunity to do wonderful things.

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