The Liberators
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The Liberators

How To Be A Leader To Teams That Resist Your Leadership

A cautionary tale about leaders and leadership

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.

Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Product Owners often assume they are leaders, even though that leadership is not always a given. Illustration by Thea Schukken and commissioned by The Liberators.

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.

“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.

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Creating a compelling product vision that motivates the team is certainly a good way to gain leadership

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.

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.

Closing words

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?

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Bass, B. M., & Bass, R. (2009). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications. Simon and Schuster.



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Christiaan Verwijs

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Passionate developer, organizational psychologist, and Scrum Master.