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The Servant Leader and the Illusion of Corporate Empowerment

Last week, I answered a reader question about what scrum masters are worth, financially speaking.  This gave rise to another reader question that I’ll tackle this week, and it has to do with the idea of the so-called servant leader.

Now, I usually follow sort of a FIFO approach for reader questions.  But I’m making an exception here because several people asked me the same question in the immediate aftermath of that post.

What do you have against the term “servant leader,” anyway?

They asked that because I threw some shade at the term in last week’s post, using the words “loathe” and “detest” to describe my opinion of it.  So I suppose it’s fair for people to follow up asking what my deal is.  And I should probably respond.

Here be dragons, like this one, when you accept a counter offer.

The truth is, up until now, my revulsion had been mainly visceral and subconscious.  But the exercise of outlining this post has helped me put more thought out bullet points behind a better thesis.

First Things First: Servant Leader, The Accepted Definition

Before I go any further, let me briefly explain the term itself.  This section will be journalism, rather than op-ed, as I explain the term to anyone unfamiliar with it.

A servant leader is, tautologically, one who practices servant leadership.  And servant leadership was defined in an interesting essay back in 1970, I believe, by a gentleman named Robert Greenleaf.

This essay is categorically not about line management of knowledge workers in the enterprise, nor was it about the enterprise at all.  Instead, it was a journey through ethical, moral, and even metaphysical considerations contrasting Messianic (servant leader) leadership impulses with will-to-power (autocratic) leadership impulses.  Greenleaf does not explicitly mention God, but he touches on faith, parables, societal ethics, and even, without irony, concepts like telepathy.

Eventually, the corporate world discovered this and does what the corporate world does — adopted it as the inspiration for a management fad.  It interpreted the historical, Taylor-esque corporate pyramid as the autocratic force in the corporate world.  And it defined a new, Messianic analog in which management exists to empower, rather than boss around, the line level employees.

So fast forward to the present, and “servant leader” is an in-crowd signaling term that represents “manager as enabler” rather than “manager as dictator.”

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Should Scrum Masters Make More than Software Developers?

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a reader question.  Let’s fix that today by examining a question that is simple in the asking and complex in the answering.  Should scrum masters make as much or more money than software developers?

The actual question was a little more nuanced, and it came from the Developer Hegemony Facebook group.

The numbers on this chart show that scrum masters could make as much as some senior level developers in Los Angeles.  I’d be curious do you guys think this is a “market distortion” brought on by the fact that the “MBAs” need a way to manage the “propeller heads” or do you really feel the market is accurately reflecting the true value a scrum master can bring to a team?

So let’s dig in.  But first, let’s make sure that everyone reading is up to speed.

What Is a Scrum Master, Anyway?

If you’re in the software world, you’ve probably heard the term “Scrum Master” before.  But let’s level-set with a definition, because for a lot of you reading this might have a fuzzy definition.  Let’s go back to first principles and snag a definition from the Scrum guide:

The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values.

The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren’t. The Scrum Master helps everyone change these interactions to maximize the value created by the Scrum Team.

First of all, this is sort of ingenious and fascinating from a meta perspective.  Scrum is a wildly successful approach sold by consultants to organizations.  It’s so successful that it’s created a job whose primary purpose is marketing the product being sold to the company.  I say this because job one is, apparently, “promoting and supporting Scrum.”  This would be like Microsoft convincing a .NET shop to create a job whose primary purpose was extolling the virtues of Microsoft products.

Should I incorporate? The monopoly guy here thinks the answer is yes, and so do I.

The Scrum Master in Practice

But I digress.  Apart from process evangelism, and the unfortunate use of a term that I personally detest (“servant leader”), the Scrum Master does provide some serious potential value.  They serve as sort of internal referees for the team, officiating collaboration and keeping it on track.  But, perhaps most importantly, they defend the team from outside distractions.  And that matters.

Of course, someone in a role like this will also develop situational dynamics with the team.  They’ll develop a knack for goosing development along, keeping people happy, and finding other ways to pitch in.

So think of Scrum Master as being sort of a process-specific hybrid of dev manager and project manager, but (most likely) without direct reports.  If you wrap your head around that concept, you can see a person whose value to the team could fluctuate pretty wildly based on myriad factors.

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Does Niching Make You Less Consultative?

Today I’m going to answer a reader question, what with it being reader question Tuesday.  Last time, I talked about how not to let negative feedback get you down.

That seems like child’s play compared to today’s question.  That’s because today’s reader question comes from a reader who is politely asking, “Erik, haven’t you contradicted yourself?”

Don’t get me wrong.  He didn’t put it to me in such direct fashion, as you’ll see shortly.  In fact, he didn’t even suggest contradiction — he was a consummate diplomat about it.  It’s just that his question caused 2018 Erik’s ideas to bang up against 2016 Erik’s.  And it took me a while to reconcile the two.

The Reader Question: Is Niching-Down Counter Productive?

Let’s get to it.  Here’s the question, with a reference to the 2016 post inline.

Thank you Erik for another great article. In “A Taxonomy of Software Consultants”, you say: “[Consultants] are hired in a more general problem-solving capacity. They advance their practice by being known for listening to their clients, tailoring solutions to them specifically, and notching glowing referrals”.

To achieve this, it looks to me that you would have to be sort of a generalist (as opposed to a specialist) in the sense of having to know (a little?) about many things. If so, it would be counterproductive to niche down. Correct?

Often you guys email me (erik at daedtech, and please, send me questions!) with questions or fill out a form on this site.  But this particular question comes in the form of a blog comment on this post, about avoiding the corporate hiring process, written just a couple of months ago.

MrJP has apparently read this blog recently, and also read it back when I made that post in 2016.  He understandably wants coherence in my overall narrative, or at least some kind of explanation.

I’m hoping to offer both today.

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Negative Comments and the Art of Not Letting the Bastards Get You Down

Time for yet another reader question post.  This one is going to be all about negative comments.  How do I deal with them?  How should you?

As an aside, any trolls arriving here to read could turn this post into an interesting meta pop-psych exercise by scrolling down immediately and blasting away in the comments section.  “Didn’t read the post, you’re an idiot!”  That’ll turn the post from theoretical reading into an applied lab exercise.

But I digress.

The Reader Question: How Do You Deal with It?

This is another short and sweet reader question.

How do you deal with the inevitable negativity toward /criticism of you or your work, when you put yourself out there (speaking, blogging, making courses, publishing books etc.)?  How do you recommend handling it?

The answer to how I deal with it is pretty simple: not well.

But I think the particulars of my “not well” involve a lot of coping mechanisms and strategies that can help you.  And here’s a hint.  It won’t ever stop bothering you.  So accept that fact because the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll stop trying futilely to “toughen yourself up” and start doing things that work.

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Content Marketing Strategy with or without an Audience

A while ago, I wrote a blog post containing side hustle ideas for software developers.  A lot of those ideas centered around content, rather than, say, writing software.  I did that on purpose.  Writing software will let you procrastinate.  Get out of your comfort zone instead.

In response to that blog post, I got a reader question, which is below.  But there’s a natural follow-up to that question.

Your ideas in the blog post for side-hustle-ideas-software-developers really inspired me.

Can you give any tips on how to market the content we create? especially for the ones with no audience.

So let’s look at that today.  You’ve got some content that you’re creating.  How do you market it?

Introducing the Marketing Funnel

Now, I should point something out.  The question doesn’t explain whether the content we’re talking about marketing is the paid content (e.g. the side hustle of writing a book or making a course).  It could also mean any content, including stuff you post to your blog.

I’m going to approach it here as if we’re talking about both.  And that’s because you should be thinking about both.

What we’re talking about here is the idea of a marketing funnel.  If you write an eBook or build a video course, that’s ultimately the content that you want people to see and pay for.  But going straight for the metaphorical jugular with your audience rarely works.

How often do you say to yourself, “here’s a person I’ve never heard of — I’ll just give them $99 for a video course.”  Probably never.

You need to build trust by offering value.  Start a blog and post about similar things that you cover in your book.

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