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Pattern of the Month: Servant Leadership

New to Agile? You're probably wondering the differences in Scrum and Agile. Here's a breakdown of the Scrum Master, and what properties these gurus possess.

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If you are new to agile practice, you may be forgiven for wondering "what is the difference between Scrum and an Agile way of working?" To an extent this is a matter of ontology, given that Scrum is but one agile framework amongst many. The problem is that, at times, the context in which Scrum ought to be considered can provoke an unglued and near-religious zealotry on the part of Scrum's critics and adherents alike. One thing at least though is unambiguous, and may be held to be true: like it or loathe it, Scrum is the "Zeus" of frameworks in the agile pantheon. But let's try and keep religion out of the matter. Let's just say that Scrum is the 800-pound gorilla of the agile world.

Now, every agile approach can be expected to conform with the principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto. Yet where each prescribes roles and responsibilities they inevitably differ. This is because the respective practices differ. Where things get interesting is that one particular role keeps on recurring. It doesn't seem to matter whether Scrum or XP is being followed, or DSDM, or DaD or SAFe. Every agile implementation is expected to allow for a certain Scrum role, or to provide an analog "close enough" to support the Scrum role's title as an alternative. In fact, it's a role that bellows the gorilla's very name...listen, he beats his chest for all to hear. Yes, that's right...each agile initiative is expected to have someone called a "Scrum Master".

In my view, the reason for this can be distilled into three forces which we can observe at work.

Firstly there is the fiat currency of Scrum Master certification. Regardless of whether it is validated by the Scrum Alliance or scrum.org, this accreditation has a high recognition factor across the industry. The association between agile practice and the "Scrum Master" role has thereby been significantly reinforced.

Secondly, Scrum terms are misapplied. In fact, the framework can be said to exhibit "cargo cult" properties. This is not due to any particular defect within it. Rather, it is down to the way Scrum's ubiquity has allowed its terms of reference to be misappropriated by a self-appointed priesthood within certain organizations. Troubled companies relabel their people and practices in Scrum terms, and from this magic they expect agile results to follow. A "Scrum Master" thus becomes a totem role, and by appointing a "Scrum Master" the totem is invoked. It's nothing more than superstitious baggage masquerading as science.

Thirdly and most importantly, however, the agile movement has contributed to a renaissance in "Servant Leadership". Servant Leadership can be thought of as a type of stewardship. Characteristics include shielding the team from diversions and distractions, facilitation, coaching, removing impediments, encouraging transparency, and advocating the team's position. That's the real and valuable pattern behind the "Scrum Master" role, and it's one which supports a wide application across multiple frameworks and methods.

- "Servant Leadership" is Pattern of the Month at agilepatterns.org

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Intent: Protect a team from distraction and impediment, and facilitate their progression towards their goals.


  • The utmost form of respect is to give sincerely of your presence
  • Sow a thought and you reap an action, sow an act and you reap a habit
  • Noblesse oblige

Also Known As:

  • Scrum Master (this term is not used exclusively in a Scrum context)

Motivation: If a team is to self-organize in order to meet a goal, they must be permitted the freedom to do so, and provided with the guidance and support they need. This implies that a manager is needed who can smooth their progress and help them to make and meet their commitments. In short good leadership is required, and the best leaders serve their team…the team does not serve them.

Structure: A Servant Leader helps a team to inspect and adapt the iterative process they follow. The leader resolves any dependencies that the team may encounter so that they do not become impediments that would compromise the incremental release of value. The leader also represents and advocates the team’s position to external stakeholders, so that the team are not approached directly and remain free to self-organize around their goal.

Applicability: Servant Leadership is applicable to all agile methods. The term Scrum Master is commonly used to describe this role, and is no longer restricted to Scrum alone.

Consequences: Servant Leadership can involve a wider remit of organizational coaching. If impediments originate from other departments, there may be political barriers to their removal.

Implementation: The canonical implementation of Servant Leadership is the Scrum Master. A Coach in Extreme Programming has a similar remit, as does the Team Leader in DSDM. It is common for all of these to be referred to as Scrum Masters.

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agile patterns,scrum,agile management

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