Scrum advocates assume that a team without a designated team leader (as it is in Scrum) is more effective than a team with a designated leader (as in traditional hierarchy). Although I can understand this point of view, I am not entirely certain that's the case.

In Scrum teams leaders always emerge. Power vacuums get filled. So if the organization already recognizes certain people as talented leaders, why not assign them an official leadership role in the first place?

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    "In Scrum teams leaders always emerge" - citation needed? The topic of self-managed or self-organizing teams goes well beyond Scrum and there's a large body of research on this, you can start with the paper that was one of the motivators for Scrum, "The New New Product Development Game". As this question stands it's really not a question but rather an expression of your opinions and assumptions seemingly in search for other opinions. My experience is almost the opposite of everything you've said but there's a lot of YMMV in these situations.
    – Guy Sirton
    Feb 2, 2014 at 20:36
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    @GuySirton: Here's one such reference: amazon.com/Management-3-0-Developers-Developing-Addison-Wesley/… -- it's not specifically about Scrum but it's a great book about managing software teams in general. Author specifically says, that anyone can/should be given a chance to be a leader and it is possible that everyone on the team could have a leadership role in some aspects (i.e. documentation, unit testing, build system, architecture, refactoring...)
    – DXM
    Feb 2, 2014 at 21:52
  • @DXM That's not what Eugene is saying. Can you provide a relevant quote that supports Eugene's claim that a "team lead" will always emerge in a Scrum team? I guess we can solve Eugene's issue by designating all the members of the team as "Leaders". Problem solved.
    – Guy Sirton
    Feb 2, 2014 at 22:03

4 Answers 4


I think you might be conflating "leader" with "hierarchy." They're not the same thing. In traditional hierarchical organizations, I would argue that you don't have scrum, or at least, not an effective organization to do scrum-like things (unless the organization also has "working teams").

I also think you're having it both ways in terms of a "designated leader." By your own admission, leaders can emerge. That's not a designated leader, it's a defacto leader.

Regardless, I think you can choose a leader in a scrum team without necessarily characterizing that team as "hierarchical." And if you don't have a leader so chosen, there's always some leadership somewhere. Were that not the case, there would be no need for software requirements.

  • If you designate someone as the leader haven't you just created a hierarchy? I agree that naturally leaders will emerge but that can also be fluid. If one problem falls in the expertise of one team member they can lead that effort. Tomorrow, someone else may lead another effort. IMO if you designate a team lead you just sucked away one of the main ideas.
    – Guy Sirton
    Feb 2, 2014 at 20:50
  • It doesn't matter. The only meaningful definition of "hierarchy" in this context is that of creating a hierarchical management corporate structure. That's not what you are doing when you're designating a team lead; you're simply assigning someone to provide some direction and arbitrate disputes. Feb 2, 2014 at 20:52
  • Is that a recursive definition? hierarchy - "a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status". Would you say a team leader has different importance or status? Congratulations, you've just created hierarchy.
    – Guy Sirton
    Feb 2, 2014 at 23:23
  • You didn't hear me. If by hierarchy you mean a generalized managerial command structure, then no, we haven't created a hierarchy. If by hierarchy you mean anyone in authority over another, then yes, but that definition is not relevant here. Feb 3, 2014 at 0:06
  • I heard you. I just disagree those are different. You are creating a command structure. When the Director of Engineering wants to get something done he will go to the Team Leader to get that done who in turn will go to the team. What is a managerial command structure if not the placing of people in levels of authority over one other? That definition is very relevant here as the existence of a designated team leader prevents other healthy processes that occur in self-managed or organizing team. A team with a designated team lead can not, by definition, be doing Scrum.
    – Guy Sirton
    Feb 3, 2014 at 0:18

In Scrum there is no designated leader in a management-hierarchical sense within the team. That means, there is no single person telling you to do Task X and to do it in Time Y. These things are decided upon by the team as a group. This way every developer is responsible, himself for his work. He estimated the time it will take, himself, he is responsible for completion, himself. Of course that also means that he takes the blame, himself if things go wrong.

In tradition models that would not be the case. There would be a team, with a designated leader who is responsible for every aspect of decision making. He would tell developers to do tasks, and he would tell them how to do it and within what time. However he would also be the one who takes the blame for everyone on the team.

This does not mean, however that teams can't have leaders in Scrum. You still need somebody with merging privileges and who has an overview of the whole project. Basically somebody who has the last say about architectural changes that could possibly affect the big picture and so on. That guy usually is the team lead. Very often, officially so.

In fact I've never worked in a Scrum environment where there was no official Team Lead. Looking at it from a pragmatic point of view, I'd actually have some issues with working in such an environment: My Team Lead is the guy who merges, he's the go-to guy for architectural problems. If there is to be an API change, we discuss things and he makes the decision.

  • Without a team lead, what if there's two guys not agreeing. Who is right?

If there are meetings concerning future developments or pretty much anything, he's the one who goes, keeping my back free to do my actual work. If decisions that were made in such a meeting seem strange, or not good, there's still Daily/Retro/Task Planning where you can raise your concerns.

  • If there is no Team Lead, then who is going?
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    "In tradition models...designated leader who is responsible for every aspect of decision making" - in my 25 years experience, I have never come across a work environment like this, even when my wife was my TL.
    – dave
    Feb 3, 2014 at 0:08
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    "He estimated the time it will take, himself..." Are you sure about this? My understanding of Scrum has the team doing the estimating for tasks on each sprint. Feb 3, 2014 at 3:41
  • Sure, but foremost it is the developer working on the task in question or is it not?
    – juwi
    Feb 9, 2014 at 16:02

"Scrum recognizes no titles for Development Team members other than Developer, regardless of the work being performed by the person; there are no exceptions to this rule;" - The Scrum Guide, Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland

So it's pretty clear that in Scrum, you can not have a person designated as team lead by the organization.

If you're not doing Scrum, you're obviously free to do whatever you want. There is research suggesting that in certain circumstances not designating a team lead has a positive impact on team performance. In their 1984 seminal paper, "The new new product development game" (Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review):

"This holistic approach has six characteristics: built-in instability, self-organizing project teams, overlapping development phases, "multilearning," subtle control, and organizational transfer of learning. The six pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, forming a fast and flexible process for new product development, just as important, the new approach can act as a change agent: it is a vehicle for introducing creative, market-driven ideas and processes into an old, rigid organization."

The body of research on this is huge and this beyond the scope of this answer.

Whether one or more "leaders" emerge in various phases for various tasks is definitely a possibility, this is very different than the organization designating a "team lead".

A while back there was a news story about a motorcyclist trapped under a burning car and a team of by-standers spontaneously assembled to lift the car and rescue him. If you wish, this is an analogy to the self-organizing team. The analogy to the "organization designated team-lead" has a less fortunate outcome for the motorcyclist.


Yes, in many Scrum teams a leader may emerge. You're assuming from the beginning, management will be able to determine who this is? Some times leaders are perceived to be those who don't get along with the team and are people who will supposedly make the tough decisions because they are not friends with the other team mates.

When you designate a title to a leader, there may be other people on the team who feel they now have to sit back and wait for the "leader" to make all the decisions. This is especially true if individual leaders are singled out and given more compensation, privileges, etc.

If you are so confident a leader will emerge and have a positive impact on the team, what is the point in trying to designate this person? If you try to give them additional rewards, you may undermine the power the team chooses to give them.

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