Scrum Master as servant-leader  - The difficulty of wearing two hats

by Hana Pearson-Coats on 03/11/2015 10:13

Equinox IT's Hana Pearson-Coats working on an Agile project as part of a Charity IT weekend

Explaining my role of Scrum Master to a non-agilest can be somewhat challenging and I often end up digging up the classic “Servant-Leader” description. While vague, it does help communicate the difference between Scrum Masters and other people-managers.

And the description is apt as the role is inherently multi-faceted - sometimes I feel like I am simultaneously performing two utterly different jobs at the same time. While in both Servant and Leader roles I work towards the same overall goal of an improved team delivery, in each I have a distinctly different focus. I have found that being explicit about these differences has helped me become a more deliberate and effective a Scrum Master.

So where are the differences?

To my mind when I am wearing the Servant-Scrum Master hat, I’m concentrating on:

  1. Dealing with team impediments
  2. Helping the team enforce their process
  3. Facilitating (within the agreed process)
  4. Working to realise the team’s needs.

While donning the Leader-Scrum Master hat, my focus is on:

  1. Identifying impediments to team performance
  2. Helping the team improve their process
  3. Facilitating (outside the process) and
  4. Working to realise the client’s needs.

When put in a list form, it is possible to see that operating as a ’Servant’, while simultaneously ‘Leading’ has its complexities.

Servant-Leader tensions

While the Servant and the Leader sets are not often at complete odds, they aren’t always in total alignment and as a result, the Scrum Master often has to negotiate between the two.

Tension is often most noticeable when the team wants to keep a process that is negatively impacting team deliverables. When wearing the Leader hat, you have to be careful to not undermine the team’s autonomy and process; when wearing the Servant hat, you have to be cautious of blindly enforcing it. Achieving both requires much care and consideration.

Many Scrum Masters find this easy. Some can instinctively see, negotiate and compromise between any tension without losing sight of the overall objective(s) and these people often fall into the Scrum Master role naturally. I liberally rely on my intuition when Scrum Mastering.

Be conscious of which Scrum Master hat you're wearing

But even as I recognise that instinct is a great guide, being very conscious of which hat I am wearing helps me be far more intentional and effective. Awareness allows me to identify what my immediate priorities are and where my focus should be, and what I need to be taking into account. Even if that knowledge doesn’t change my behaviour, knowing what I am doing helps me ensure I haven’t been wearing one hat for too long.

So next time you are Scrum Mastering, ask yourself: Which hat are you wearing today?

You may also be interested in our other Scrum articles, including:

Hana Pearson-Coats is a Systems Analyst and Scrum Master based in Equinox IT's Wellington office.

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