Agile: No Place for Leaders?

In 2005, I was introduced to Scrum by Mike Marchi a former colleague and current Agile guru. He convinced enough of us dirtied in the bowels of death march, waterfall software development that there was a cool new way to create software. His passion for Scrum resulted in a groundswell of grassroots interest. Prior to obtaining the support of those in the trenches, he convinced Management to bring in Jeff Sutherland to conduct a Scrum training, a gamble that paid dividends. During the course, we all became Certified Scrum Masters. The trajectory of my professional life changed during that two-day training.

One of the precepts of the methodology is that teams do not have leaders. There is a Product Owner responsible for defining and prioritizing the work to be done, the Scrum Master responsible for facilitating the Scrum Team, and the Scrum Team, an egalitarian group, consisting of those that do the work. Egalitarian by definition considers all people equals with equal rights and opportunities. Egalitarian by definition leaves no room for leaders.

I have long had a passion for leadership development believing leadership was a necessary ingredient in organization effectiveness. So, this ‘a leader is not required’ mentality did not sit well with my view of the world.

The quality of leadership, more than any other single factor, determines the success or failure of an organization.” ~ Fred Fiedler & Martin Chemers, Author: Improving Leadership Effectiveness

“Leadership is the scarcest resource and most important resource in the world. Nothing happens without leadership.” ~Robert McDonald, CEO P&G

I don’t think the egalitarian nature of the Agile Manifesto was built in because the drafters had anything against leaders. I think it was built-in because they were combating Managers with deficient leadership skills. What they were trying to eliminate was the inefficiencies caused by meddling managers that disrupted teams and robbed the teams of their joy and the customers of an excellent product. I believe the drafters were:

  • determined to remove the time sink that occurs when a team waits for the top-down, autocratic manager to give them direction.
  • determined to eliminate team members being pigeonholed into a narrow scope of work because they were the experts and project managers desired short-term, optimum speed instead of longer sighted individual growth.
  • determined to eliminate the insanity of death marches to meet dates because management defined all three sides of the iron triangle, scope, features, and schedule, in a vacuum.
  • determined to eliminate management decisions that resulted in the delivery of software that did not meet customer expectations much less delight the customers.

I reject the ‘No Leaders’ precept and replace it with a Leadership-centric precept for the Agile teams I coach. I believe teams achieve optimal performance when everyone on the team is a leader, or more accurately, a servant leader. Which, according to leadership guru Patrick Lencioni, is the only real type of leadership.

How does Servant Leadership or ‘Real Leadership’ work within the concept of an Agile team?

Servant leadership is a contrarian view to the traditional view of leadership and it’s top down hierarchical understanding of the world. Where traditional leadership is command/control, Servant Leadership is question/facilitation. The five principles of Servant Leadership are:

  1. Upend the Pyramid
  2. Raise the Bar
  3. Blaze the Trail
  4. Build on Strength
  5. Run to Great Purpose – Highest priority is the customer, delivering software the delights

1. Up End The Pyramid – Project Manager to Scrum Master

In traditional Management (Project Management), the top of the pyramid is the boss who reigns over those in his/her domain. The traditional manager is the all knowing seer that answers questions, sets direction, makes the decisions.  In the worst case, the subordinates are there to prop up the leader’s ego.

In the Servant Leader (Scrum Master) universe, the pyramid is flipped, the leader is on the bottom supporting those that do the work. The Servant Leader does whatever it takes to help the team meet the needs of the customer. This is accomplished not by dictating but by asking questions to help the team find answers resulting in the team members learning and growing. This is also accomplished by the rigorous removal of any impediments preventing the team from getting the work done.

In the Servant Leader (Scrum Team) universe, the team members must understand that for any one individual to win they all must win. If one developer doesn’t deliver code or one tester doesn’t complete code then the goal of the sprint to deliver working software has not been achieved.

Rather than a developer viewing a tester as a necessary evil, the developer flips that pyramid and sees the tester as the customer of the code. The developer and tester partner to achieve optimal code functionality and quality.

2. Raise The Bar

Servant Leadership sets the base performance standards at a high level. Excellence is expected. Not perfection because perfection is not achievable. And for motivation to take place, the expected performance levels must be achievable. Nothing frustrates teams as having a goal they know day one can’t be achieved.

Every member of the team must first lead themselves by raising their own performance capabilities by continual growing their skill sets. The goal is mastery. They must set their sight on new levels of excellence for their own performance then for the team performance.

The Pygmalion Effect is a phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed on a person the better the performance will be. Expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each team member must lead their teammates by holding them accountable for increasing performance standards.

For performance to improve, a feedback loop must be in place. Agile is about human interactions so each person on the team is a feedback point. Each person must be willing to give the ‘gift’ of candid feedback to help the team grow.

3. Blaze The Trail

Servant Leadership goes first. They model expected behaviors. They create an atmosphere of excellence by modeling and teaching excellence in all they do.

  • If you want high standards…You must be the first to adhere to them
  • If you want cultural change…you must be the first to model the change
  • If you want candid teams…give candor, reward candor
  • If you want respectful teams…show respect to everyone both inside and outside the team

When the team selects something to change during the retrospective, the leader doesn’t wait to see if another will go first. They just do it. For optimal performance, all team members must lead by example and go first. Each person takes the initial steps toward raising their own bar irrespective if anyone else on the team follows suit.

The Servant Leader is the first to request the gift of candid feedback. And, when requested, gives the gift of candid feedback in a way that edifies the recipient.

Agile has a built in feedback loop called the sprint retrospective. At the absolute minimum, the team needs to be candid in the retrospective meeting. In the best cases, enough trust has developed between the team members that candid feedback is gifted continually throughout a sprint cycle.

Candid feedback is a trait of the best leaders. To avoid the personal discomfort that may come with providing candid feedback is an abdication of their responsibilities to the team.

4. Build On Strength

Teams need a variety of skill sets to operate at peak performance and should be configured to maximize individual strengths. A person will operate best when in an area of strength because it’s probably a passion. Pairing skill with passion frequently results in the magic of producing excellence.

However, this does not mean a person only works in their area of strength. The team members must have workable knowledge in other areas to effectively operate as a team.

If you are a front-end developer, you will also grow your back-end skills to help the team succeed when the needs of a sprint are not perfectly balanced. If you role is Q/A, you will understand coding and provide feedback to developers on what needs to be unit tested because functional testing is inefficient.

5. Run to Great Purpose

Purpose is what gives meaning to the other principles of Servant Leadership. Without purpose, the soul is not stirred, magic won’t manifest.

An agile team does not create software for the sake of cool code or perfect testing. The purpose of an Agile team is to deliver software that delights the customer. This is clearly and succinctly listed in the first principle behind the Agile Manifesto:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.


Each person, acting as a Servant Leader, gives the team the best possible chance of achieving success.

As a Servant Leader, they create an autonomous unit where every person is valued as a unique individual with something important to contribute to the success of a team. As a Servant Leader, they create an environment encouraging and expecting people to master their skills and grow new skills. As a Servant Leader, they create an environment where each individual’s skills serve the purpose of delivering software that delights a customer.

Not only is there a place for leadership on an Agile team, it is a necessary ingredient for an Agile team to be highly successful.

Author: David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 2. I spend my days working for a medium sized multinational corporation where I am an Agile Coach. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7-year-old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on an 18-month delegation. It's an adventure that was 1.5 years in the making...The experience is captured on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad" My two latest blogs are "The Learning Leader", a topic I have been studying since 1990, and "Lipstick on a Pig", a foray into the fashion sense of this middle aged man.

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