How To Be A Leader To Teams That Resist Your Leadership
A cautionary tale about leaders and leadership
When you work enough with teams, sooner or later you run into one that isn’t receptive to your guidance. They are not buying your ideas about Scrum, Agile, pair programming, or whatever you want to bring them.
Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Agile Coaches, and other change agents often see themselves as “leaders of empiricism”. But what if a team resists? There is a lot to learn about what it means to be a leader, and what leadership is. More importantly, I want to emphasize what it shouldn’t translate to in practice.
Leaders in Empiricism
Scrum Masters are leaders in empiricism. The Scrum Guide (2020) defines them as “true leaders who serve the team and the larger organization”. It then goes on to provide a list of how Scrum Masters should do this. For example, they “coach the team members in self-management and cross-functionality”, and “ensure that all Scrum events take place”. They also “facilitate stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed”. The focus of these activities is very much on guiding teams towards a more fulfilling and productive way of doing work by closely interacting with stakeholders and returning value to them sooner.
So while Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and other change agents are certainly leaders in the sense that they provide guidance, this quickly gets problematic when “the others” have no desire to be guided. I’ve struggled greatly with this as a Scrum Master and recognize it in others too. Even when we are entirely convinced of the value of empiricism, Scrum, and working collaboratively, many are skeptical or even entirely unwilling — often for understandable reasons. But what does it mean to be a leader in such circumstances? Is it even possible to be a leader to people who don’t want to be led?
Leadership is always a transaction
I think that many of the difficulties originate from how to use the word “leader” in our daily practice. We often assume it to be a characteristic of a person. The Scrum Guide does this too when it describes Scrum Masters as “true leaders”. But this “person as a leader”-narrative is problematic.
Because in practice, leadership never resides in a person. Leadership exists exclusively as a transaction between people. One group of individuals offers to be led, while another accepts to lead. This transaction always means that the followers accept a loss of some autonomy in return for expected benefits. This transaction is also continuous and takes place between each individual who accepts to be led and the person who accepts the lead. It is an ongoing process of giving and taking. I think a much better way to think about leadership is to see it as something that is given by those who are willing to be led rather than taken by the person wanting to lead.
“I think a much better way to think about leadership is see it as something that is given by those who are willing to be led rather than taken by the person wanting to lead.”
It is true that some people are better suited to be offered leadership. Some people are more charismatic or better able to formulate a compelling vision. But that alone isn’t enough. Even the most charismatic visionary can’t lead a group that isn’t compelled by that vision.
So while charisma and vision are helpful, you can only lead people who want to be led. And since leadership is always a transaction — a give and take — your leadership as a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or change agent will only materialize when you know what people need and how to bring them there. This shifts the focus of leadership away from showing the way, to understand what motivates people in the first place. It also requires trust on the part of the group that you will treat them respectfully.
This is a fundamentally different view of leadership. It is also central to the concept of “servant leadership” as introduced by Robert Greenleaf (1970). In his view, people can only be leaders when they serve the needs of those they lead. “Serving” and “leading” are not two separate things, but are inherently connected. This is very similar to more contemporary views on leadership, such as those inspired by Bernard Bass (1985) on transformation leadership.
“This shifts the focus of leadership away from showing the way, to understanding what motivates people in the first place.”
What this means for change agents
So what does all this mean in practice for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and other change agents? Here are five key takeaways:
- You can only be a leader to people when you understand what motivates them, and when what you have to offer brings people closer to that.
- As a consequence of the previous, you can not be a leader to people who feel you have nothing to offer them or don’t understand them.
- The hierarchical position you hold in an organization, nor the title of your role, makes you a leader. Leadership is offered. And it can be offered to anyone, regardless of their role or position.
- If you want to be able to guide people in a change, you have to discover how that change is beneficial to them — not to you, the stakeholders, or customers.
- If people resist your ideas, pushing them harder will only undermine the leadership that they have given you. If you have little leadership to start with, pushing them harder will put you out of the group.
How to gain leadership
So what can you do when you are faced with a team that is unreceptive to your ideas about Scrum and Agile? What if they resist? How can you gain leadership, if possible at all?
1. Learn what motivates them, and explain Agile through that lens
As Scrum Masters, we often describe the purpose of Scrum as “deliver more value to stakeholders sooner”. While true, this is hardly motivating for people who don’t know their stakeholders nor feel the drive to deliver more value. The transactional view of leadership shows us that we only receive leadership when we can tap into what motivates people intrinsically. Some people are motivated by the opportunity to take on tough challenges and develop mastery. Others are motivated by learning, increased autonomy, being recognized by others, or by sharing with others.
The Moving Motivators by Management 3.0 is a great exercise to start these kinds of conversations. It's a good way to learn what motivates teams and their members. Once you have a better sense of what people are looking for, you can emphasize those parts of Agile or the Scrum framework that resonate with that. You can also provide a compelling vision of what is possible with Agile given those motivators. But be careful to provide an honest story here, and not to manipulate people into going along with a change that won’t actually deliver what motivates them.
2. Gain trust by spending time with teams
Leadership does not exist without trust. I’ve found that the best way to build trust is to spend time with a team and its individual members. Go for lunch together. Plan non-work activities that give you opportunities to connect as people, and not just as colleagues. “Trust” is an abstract concept, but you can make it tangible in your behavior. You gain trust when you treat resistance with respect, when you encourage disagreement and open discussion and when you show vulnerability. You can show trust by speaking about people with respect, even when you don’t agree with them. And you can show trust by being open about your intentions and doubts.
3. Don’t push
If you find that a team is completely unreceptive to your ideas about Scrum and Agile, the worst thing you can do is push. Since they haven’t given you leadership, you will only push yourself out of the team.
A better idea in these situations is to take a step back. Don’t offer guidance, but listen and observe. Or join in to help, as any other team member. I think this is particularly relevant when you’re new to a team. Especially in those situations, you haven’t gained leadership and trust, and any attempt to guide and control will be met with — very understandable — resistance.
4. In some cases, you’ll never gain leadership
The transactional view on leadership makes clear that “the mantle of leadership” is not something you take, but something you are given. Regardless of how charismatic you are, how well you can explain Agile or Scrum, and how nice of a person you are, sometimes you just won’t receive this mantle. Sometimes you’re just not the right person.
If you find yourself in such a situation for a longer amount of time, it's probably better for everyone to move on. You can either move to a different team or switch to a different role (e.g. from Scrum Master to Developer).
The Scrum Guide describes Scrum Masters as “true leaders”. In this post, we explored how this is a problematic view of leadership that is all too common in our daily practice. Because how can you be a leader to a team that is resisting your leadership?
A transactional view of leadership is more realistic and more useful. It sees leadership as an ongoing transaction between (potential) leaders and followers. In this view, leadership is given — not taken. We also explored that leadership is given only when teams feel they can trust a potential leader, and when that leader shows great sensitivity to their needs.
I think that this view has more ramifications on our work with Scrum teams than we may initially think. Being a successful Scrum Master, Agile Coach or Product Owner starts with understanding the needs of the team, and not by explaining Scrum.
Bass, B. M., & Bass, R. (2009). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications. Simon and Schuster.
Greenleaf, Robert K. The servant-leader within: A transformative path. Paulist press, 2003.