The slaves in a Scrum team

To make a project successful, it needs a role providing the vision, goals, and leadership, someone overseeing the constraints like tasks, budget, and time, as well as someone ensuring the efficient and effective use of resources in order to produce the desired quality. These roles need titles. When choosing the words for these titles, we should carefully look at the meaning of the words behind these titles, because words are so powerful! Using the right or wrong words can have a great effect on people. There are lots of words that intrigue me why people are using them and whether they understand what they actually mean.

This is a sometimes humorous look at the words behind typical leadership roles in projects past and present.


The Oxford dictionary defines a leader to be „the person who leads or commands a group“ or „a conductor of a band or small musical group.“ A leader knows where (s)he wants to go and what (s)he wants to achieve.

There used to be the role of a Project Leader. That role defined the person in charge of a project. The project leader was everything a project team could want: The project leader knew everything about the work product and had a clear vision of it in mind before starting the project. The project leader adjusted the process if needed, mentored team members, and guided the team forward with knowledge and wisdom. In the pure sense of the word, the project leader was a true leader.

As this type of leader would quickly suffer from burnout, the actual number of such leaders has always been extremely limited. This resulted in the need to separate leaders into multiple roles and persons.


At some point in time, leadership began to not be as important as the numbers: the project leader became the Project Manager. The Oxford dictionary defines a manager as „a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization“. The project manager therefore knows how to control, administer, and manage the people of the project team, the budget and the time. But other than that, the project manager doesn’t really need any real knowledge of the work product to be created.

This results in the need for someone else to step up to define the heading of a project and how the team will achieve the goals of the project.


Modern methodologies like ‚Scrum‘ take it a step further, they introduced the „Scrum Master“. The number one definition of the Oxford dictionary of a master is „a man who has people working for him, esp. servants or slaves“. That doesn’t sound too good, does it? Who wants to be or feel like a slave? Luckily, the Oxford dictionary also defines a master as „a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity“, „a person who holds a second or further degree from a university or other academic institution“, or „a man in charge of an organization or group“.

But what does a Scrum Master do? According to Wikipedia, „the Scrum Master ensures that the Scrum process is used as intended. The Scrum Master is the enforcer of the rules of Scrum, often chairs key meetings, and challenges the team to improve.“ Therefore, all the scrum master needs to do is to master the scrum process and the team members therein. Not more.

Then who is the leader, the person leading the development team?


In Scrum, the role of leadership is given to the „Product Owner“. The Oxford dictionary defines the owner to be „a person who owns something“. That something is accountability for the success of the product. According to Wikipedia, „the Product Owner represents the stakeholders and is the voice of the customer. He or she is accountable for ensuring that the team delivers value to the business.“ Since the product owner knows the goals but doesn’t necessarily need to know how the development team will reach these goals, the product owner cannot be the leader for the development team.

Instead, the development team must and can choose their leader themselves.


When comparing words like manager, owner, or master with leader, I get these associations: Wherever there is an owner there is someone who doesn’t own. Wherever there is a master there might be a slave. Who are the non-owners and slaves in your scrum team? Who’d you want in your project – a master of slaves in a process, a manager of numbers, or a leader of free slaves?