Leaderless

To change with change is the changeless state

– Bruce Lee.

I’ve been spending much of my time in the new year helping a number of existing Scrum teams improve their use of the Scrum Framework.

Teams going through the practice motions without fully understanding or appreciating why or what they hope to gain by using Scrum and Agile.

Zombie Agile results in Zombie Teams!

My favourite way to shepherd lost teams back towards high performance is to acquaint or re-acquaint them with the values and principles underlying their chosen agile way of working.

For Scrum, I use the Scrum Guide. This time, it gave me an opportunity to dive deeper into the changes introduced with the latest November 2020 version of the guide. The changes are relatively significant compared to previous change iterations. I like and applaud the majority of the changes. Three that especially resonate for me are:

  1. Less Prescriptive Language. In keeping with its intent to be a framework rule book and not a playbook, the guide has been reduced from 19 to 14 pages.
  2. Three Sprint Planning Topics. The addition of “The Why” to “The What” and “The How” for each Sprint enables greater business transparency for the Scrum Team and the micro decisions they will make as they adapt throughout the Sprint.
  3. A Unified Team Focused On One Product. The Development Team is now simply referred to as Developers that are part of the single Scrum Team. As opposed to a team within a team. All for one and one for all.

However, there is one change which troubles me.

In my humble opinion, the most controversial change was replacing the term “servant leader” with “true leader who serves” in reference to the Scrum Master.

What’s up with that?!

What the heck is a “true leader”? And if the Scrum Master is a “true leader”, does that make other leaders “false leaders” or “wannabe leaders”?

I’ve read many perspectives on why the change was made including a perspective from Jeff Sutherland, co-author of the Scrum Guide. The reasons include:

  • Misinterpretation of the term servant leader that led us away from real leadership
  • Perceptions within organizations of the Scrum Master role being a second class citizen or low value role
  • Many organizations not understanding the concept of servant leadership leading to Scrum Masters seconded to roles of pure facilitator, team assistant and junior manager without authority

What troubles me about this change is not the need to elevate the Scrum Master role in the face of all these misperceptions and misunderstandings. What does trouble me is that we’ve seemingly thrown the baby out with the bathwater in doing so. It feels like we’ve capitulated to Taylorist organizations who refuse to accept or even recognize that there exist other ways to manage organizations.

I’ve always loved the term “servant leader”. It beautifully described my preferred leadership style. I am still striving and struggling everyday to live it. My appreciation for it grows deeper and deeper each time I read and re-read two of my favourite books on the topic:

  1. Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree
  2. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness by Robert K. Greenleaf who coined the term over 52 years ago

I relished the look of confusion or astonishment on the faces of traditional managers who asked me what their role in an Agile world was and I answered “servant leader”. It was a great conversation starter as the managers choked on the word “servant”. It was the very jolt needed to start a paradigm shift. I can’t imagine how the term “true leader” would yield the same effect. No one would be compelled to change because everyone would believe they are already a true leader. Their title says so.

The point is whether you use the term servant leader or true leader, it’s the conversation that continues after those 2 words that make all the difference in perceptions.

What if we assessed those conversations before changing the term? I’d be interested in pursuing the following questions:

  • What has been the quality of all our collective servant leader conversations that the Scrum Guide initiated?
  • Could it be that it was those conversations or lack thereof that led to the misinterpretations, misunderstandings and misperceptions?
  • How might we have raised the quality and fidelity of those conversations?

Instead, we’ve let the deadweight of 112 years of scientific management plough through 52 years of servant leadership.

I agree 100% that the Scrum Master role needs to be elevated. Labelling them a true leader may help with or hinder that.

And what about the rest of the Scrum Team? By focusing on turning the Scrum Master alone into a true leader, what does that mean for leadership at large? How might we initiate the larger leadership conversations described in the Scrum Guide?

I have 3 thoughts as to how I would start those conversations:

  1. Borrowing from a Kanban change management principle: “Encourage acts of leadership at every level” not just with Scrum Masters.
  2. The Scrum Master models how to be a true leader with the ultimate goal of enabling the effectiveness of the Scrum Team which includes being a self-managed and dare I say, a self-led team.
  3. The Scrum Master can’t be a true leader on their own. They need the support of everyone on the team acting as leaders. In ice hockey, a player trying to carry the puck up the ice alone is far less effective than passing the puck up the ice to another player. The puck always travels much faster when passed rather than carried. Pass the puck!

Inspired by Bruce Lee’s opening quote about change, here’s how I would describe the aspiration of a highly effective Scrum Team including the Scrum Master:

“To lead without leading is the leaderless state”

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