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Who Cooked My Goose?

01/12/2012 by Badri Srinivasan

In projects that implement Scrum, the role of the ScrumMaster is very crucial. The ScrumMaster facilitates the team to achieve the end goal of the customer focuses on ensuring that any impediments and road blocks faced by the team are removed, and he ensures that the core focus of the team is on developing the product/service for the customer under optimal conditions. Thus, he is in effect practicing “servant leadership” where the focus is on giving priority attention to the needs of the team members and those they serve (customer). It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization’s business objectives.

Software development is complex and the most clever, creative people in your organisation don’t want to be led or managed. In an increasingly cut-throat and competitive market place, it is imperative to hire talented people -- knowledge workers -- in order to be competitive and innovate in the marketplace. To get the best out of these people, a different form of leadership is required. However, anxious you may be in trying to ensure that the work needs to be completed, it is to be understood that you shouldn’t try to tell the knowledge workers what to do and how to do it.  Instead, a better technique is to set a clear goal that excites and motivates them by explaining the importance and benefit of achieving it within the given constraints and provide appropriate support through facilitation. Your role as a ScrumMaster is to inspire and guide the knowledge workers, not to manage them.

This leads to a paradox: How are we supposed to not manage the team but at the same time ensure that the work gets completed within the committed timelines to ensure customer satisfaction and also make sure that the team stays motivated? Here is where the concept of servant leadership comes into the picture. In many places, the phrase is bandied about without much thought given to how a servant leader ought to lead the team so the term remains somewhat hazy for many people.

While referring to the overall skill set of the ScrumMaster one of the skills often listed is servant leadership. However, I would like to point out that this is the most important quality of a ScrumMaster apart from skills like communication, soft skills, maturity, empathy, etc. However, it is generally listed far down the total skill set that a ScrumMaster ought to possess, or sometimes it is not listed at all. This is mainly due to the fact that a majority of the people are not clear about what servant leadership actually means.

The servant leader is a person who seeks to draw out, inspire, and develop the best qualities in a person from the inside out, whereas a manager drives results and motivation from the outside in. This leads to a new form of control -- a sense of vision to which people are drawn and united, one that enables team members to be driven by the motivation inside them to achieve a common purpose.

How do you move, then, from a team of individuals to a cohesive unit? It takes a ScrumMaster who is willing and able to be a servant leader, and who can help the team members overcome the obstacles that make self-organization so difficult.

The Servant Leader

To function at a high level, a team needs an excellent leader, one who ensures that the impediments and road blocks faced by the team are removed; one who sees to it that the core focus of the team is on creating the product/service for the customer under optimal conditions. On a Scrum team, this leader is the ScrumMaster.A ScrumMaster is a servant leader>one whose focus is on the needs of the team members and those they serve (the customer), with the goal of achieving results in line with the organization's values, integrity, and business objectives.

Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization's resources: human, financial and physical. The essential quality that sets servant leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience -- the moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. It's a quality that highlights the difference between a leadership that works and a leadership that endures (servant leadership).

However, in reality, based on the organizational structure and the market conditions, this is a very difficult quality to adopt. It cannot be practiced easily as a lot of factors conspire to ensure that the ScrumMaster stays grounded in his daily activities and cannot rise above the humdrum of his daily work to focus on a higher quality of perception that is so necessary to ensure that he performs the true role of a servant leader.

Moral authority is another way to define servant leadership as it represents a mutual choice between the leader and the follower. As Stephen Covey says, "If the Leader is principle centered, he or she will develop moral authority. If the follower is principle centered, he or she will follow the leader." In this aspect, both the leader and the followers are followers as they follow the truth. They follow natural law and principles and a common agreed upon shared vision. They share values and grow to trust one another. Thus, moral authority is mutually developed and shared. This explains why trust is the most important factor in the systemic environment that enables the servant leader to perform his duties at the highest level.

However, servant leadership by itself is an old concept. In the ancient Hindu text, Arthashastra, Chanakya commented in the 4th century B.C.: "The king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]. The king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

Servant leadership focuses on collaboration, trust, empathy, and the usage of power ethically. The servant leader’s objective is to enhance and increase teamwork and personal involvement.

Let me explain this abstract concept with an example and a phenomenon that is widely seen in nature. Migrating geese know instinctively that they cannot reach their destination if they do it alone. Flying in V-formation gives the geese 70% more flying range than if each goose flew alone because as each goose flaps its wings, it creates an upward lift for the following geese.

Whenever a goose falls out of the planned formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone and quickly gets back into formation. When the lead goose gets tired, it goes back into the next level of the planned formation while another goose move up to fly at the pole point position. Geese in the rear of the planned formation honk to encourage those up front to increase their speed.

When a goose gets sick or wounded, two other geese drop out of the planned formation and follow it down to help and provide protection. They stay with the unhealthy member of the flock until it is either able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out again with another passing flock or try to catch up on their own with their own flock.

Like geese, teams who share a common direction and a sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily than those who try to do it alone. These teams understand that their success depends on working together taking turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. They, too, learn to “honk from behind” to encourage other team members and they, like geese, feel responsibility towards each other when things are going badly.


In our daily life, it is very difficult for the ScrumMaster to constantly ensure all team members work together cohesively to achieve the final delivery for the customer, as people are complex personalities. The ScrumMaster is constantly battling various issues that arise during his daily work in order to ensure that the team does not face any road blocks while executing the work. However, if he keeps in mind the role of a servant leader while doing his work, he will be better able to keep the team members motivated toward the goal, which will lead to better customer satisfaction in the end.

On the other hand, if he follows the traditional role of a manager trying to ensure that he gets the work done, things may work out in the short term. In the long term, however, he should not be surprised to find himself staring asking a tough question when things turn out badly and the customer is dissatisfied: Who cooked my goose?!

This does not imply that servant leadership is the only correct way to do the work. It does, however, highlight the fact that in a complex adaptive system (which is the nature of software development), optimal and effective work gets done if trust, motivation and inspiration are present in the systemic environment and what better way to achieve it other than servant leadership. It leads to the highest level of customer satisfaction which is what the ScrumMaster is aspiring to achieve in the end by facilitating and inspiring his team to deliver a product of the highest quality to the customer within the given constraints and other mutually agreed upon parameters.