Project Management

Are we ready for Servant Leadership?

From the Servant Leadership: Serve to Be Great Blog
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This blog is about leadership as it applies to projects and project management, but also as it applies to society in general. The bloggers here manage projects and lead teams in both business and volunteer environments, and are all graduates of PMI's Leadership Institute Master Class. We hope to bring insight into the challenges we all experience in our projects and in our day-to-day work, providing helpful tidbits to inspire you to take action to improve—whether in your personal life, your business/work life or on your projects. Read, comment and share your experiences as we share ours. Let’s make the pie bigger! Grab a slice!

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What do we need to make things work?

In any field, any job, any team, any country - what must we have in order to be sure we are heading to success?

Ask these questions to different people and, for sure, you will get different “ingredients” that are mandatory to complete any task/project/endeavor/work. But, at the same time, in 90% of the cases, one element will always be on the list.

And that element is leadership.

Immaterial and shapeless, always there, but not easy to find, leadership is seen as the panacea for every major challenge. Of course, we don’t ignore the small “pills” from the soft skills batch (e.g. negotiation, motivation etc.) or from the technical assortment (e.g. project management, business analysis etc.). But, every time (lately, at least), the general impression seems to be that they work only in combination with leadership.

According to every (major) “business” book, in order to be successful, you need skills, luck, stars to be aligned correctly and so on. But, apart from all of those, you need leadership!

Every successful recipe and every successful story is not about the despair, the stress and the sick to the stomach that burden the hero before triumph. It’s about how he or she grabs his or her own destiny with bare hands and seizes the right moments, overcoming the challenges. It’s about how he or she exhibits true “leadership”, most of the time, despite the opposition, resistance and/or lack of trust coming from the team or any other stakeholder.

Again, the leadership-panacea worked. The hero-leader “administered” it to the team and it brought results. It doesn’t matter that some of them didn’t respond to this “treatment” or just showed “side-effects” (like demotivation, low efficiency etc.). What matters is that we have another successful story about another “great” leader, ready to share his “unique” example. We have another example of  “I did it my way and it worked, thus I am a great leader!”.

And... the tragically comic part is that most of us want it this way. We like the lonely hero (leader?) who manages to get himself or herself “reborn” and wins against all odds, despite the ultimatums.. We are fine with “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” as long as we aren’t the “eggs”.  Ultimately, we savor the “winning” stories and most likely, picture ourselves in the same situations, showing the same power, pushing everybody until their last drop and succeeding no matter what.

Then, in this “power-hailing” environment, what are my chances as a Servant Leader?

Servant Leadership is all about promoting a virtuous cycle “serve<->lead”, focusing on the people and not on self and leading with authority, not power. It’s about patience, kindness, respectfulness, commitment, sacrifice. It’s about finding and understanding the “WHY?” for every one of your followers so you can contribute to his or her development. No universal recipe, no panacea and, most important, no you or we but they.

And, even if it is about others-focused, the change has to start with you, as a Servant Leader. It’s not about what I can do with you or to you (as it was in the hero stories mentioned above). It’s about what I can do for you. So, is there any room for Servant Leadership?

We (meaning our two servant leadership trainers from my company) had recently a workshop with several leaders (CEO, CFO, CTO etc) coming from different companies. They wanted to get acquainted with Servant Leadership and see if this can be a good approach for them (they lead teams with 10 or more people). We did an experiment at the beginning and asked every each one of them to tell us their leadership challenges from both directions - as a leader and as a follower. And, for the follower part, we ask them to make an effort and tell us also what they believe the challenges are for their team (their followers). The list that resulted in the end was impressive but, at the same time, pretty common for this level of management: making people understand the vision and becoming more independent, eliminate fear of outsourcing, having people assuming responsibility and ownership and so one and so forth (on the leadership part) and fear, lack of trust, lack of vision etc. (on the follower side).

We asked also for some solutions to attach to this list. And here we had the most interesting revelations:

1.     All of the solutions were focused on what to do TO and WITH the people in order to tackle the lack of vision or bringing independence. “FOR the people” was completely ignored.

2.     None of the solutions were actually related to the leader himself - what he needs to change in his behaviour and/or his approach. Everything was meant for the other side - the followers

3.     None of them even remotely considered the possibility of understanding WHY the people in their teams behave in such a way that they bring these challenges on the table, WHY they express fear, lack of trust etc.

Even more, when we suggested going back and find out the WHY (the root cause, if you like) for each one of the team members, some of them smiled ironically. In their opinion, that “Why” mumbo jumbo is just about motivating and engaging people. And they already did that ONCE in the past! At this moment, they wanted a clear solution (“pill”?) on how to make them independent, on how to eliminate fear and lack of trust. They needed to take action and show the direction to the team. A suggestion to serve by exploring the needs of each member seemed rather ubiquitous, time consuming and useless (as they already did it ONCE).

Basically, the conclusion was that this is a “tough world” and the leader needs to take action now and to decide what’s best for the team. Competition is fierce, results are needed so we don’t have time for “mellow” stuff like concentrating on meeting people’s needs, finding the why, serve and make sure that the team members perform at their highest potential.

Interesting, isn’t it? There were about 15 companies represented there, with more than 1500 employees (all together). For all of them and for all of us looking for great leadership, I keep and convey my message that closes every presentation I do on Servant Leadership: Anyone can be a Servant Leader.

But are we ready for Servant Leadership?

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: April 13, 2016 05:18 AM | Permalink

Comments (13)

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Interesting piece. Thanks. I am seeing more and more materials that suggest that encouraging people to manage themselves is more productive, certainly where there is more complexity in the work being performed, is most productive (per the self organizing team approach in agile). I saw a great video by Dan Pink talking about this.

It sounds interesting, and I think it is good to shift your thinking in terms of how you serve others versus how they serve you - - but I think the advise from "Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager" by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood provides some better guidance. The target readership is individuals lacking formal project training who are nevertheless responsible for leading projects. They suggest the following:

*Demonstrating respect. Good leaders anticipate and meet the needs of their teams. They are honest with coworkers at all levels." This does parallel with asking yourself how you can best serve others, but I like the focus on honesty.

*Listening first. It is important to understand a situation before taking action. Project managers should get to know the members of their teams." I like this focus on listening and understanding.

*Clarifying expectations. Informal leaders inspire their teams by communicating how each person''s role fits into the bigger picture. They make sure everyone is on the same page." This is something that gets drilled into us following the PMBok methods - but again, I don''t think it hurts to have a reminder.

*Practicing accountability. Project leaders model good behavior and transparency. They "walk their talk" and hold others accountable. That is the part I see missing in the Servant Leadership message; and isn''t it what sets a leader/manager apart from other members of the team?

The essence of servant leadership is all about having enabling mind set. Thanks for your thoughts

Great article! From the employee viewpoint, I think that fear based polices are a part of the problem, and, also, managers that use those policies are part of the problem as well. You can't expect employees to be more independent if you penalize them for the smallest infractions.

I think Servant Leadership works best when the team understands that anyone can be the servant leader, at any time and at any point in the project.

Thank you Stacy for the comment. It is good to have a discussion on this topic (even in relation with other articles :) ).
I feel that Servant Leadership has different suggestions (I would say approaches) than the ones you mentioned:
- Demonstrate respect - it's more than honesty. In Servant Leadership, respect means treating others like important persons. It's not enough to be honest with them but actually give importance to that person
- Listen first - if you just listen (even if you listen first) is not enough. As a Servant Leader, active listening should be the focus.
- Clarifying expectations - it's always good to be on the same page (to have everybody in the same "boat") - you are right. However, as I mentioned in the article - for most leaders, this "clarification" is another way to align to a vision he or she has. Servant Leadership is going deeper than that - and get "expectations" in terms of what the right thing is for the followers also and what they expect in order to develop themselves. It's more than just the organisation (or project).
- Accountability - I think here maybe it wasn't clear. The fact that a Servant Leader is "others-focused" doesn't mean he or she is pushing the accountability to them. It's actually increasing his or her accountability and responsibility. Instead of being accountable just for the (project) results, a Servant Leader has to achieve those results AND make sure that his or her followers' (team) needs are fulfilled AND they perform at their highest potential. I would say that this is even more responsibility and accountability, wouldn't you?

The idea is that we need to "see" pass the results-hunt or the formal objectives and "go" to the people. And for this, we should overpass the traditional recipes which give only the impression that we care, while, in the real life, we still are driven by the same eagerness to win and obtain success no matter the means.

Thank you Suresh.

Thank you Ed.
I love this comment: "..Servant Leadership works best when the team understands that anyone can be the servant leader..".

An unexpected and thoughtful reply. My thoughts are deeply influenced by the difference between being a managing consultant (a service role often focused on helping individuals) and being a commercial manager (typically focused on helping the organization to which I belong.) From experience with both, the accountability for success of the effort vs. success as it relates to inter-personal relationships looks and feels different.

I will say nothing made me as happy as a consultant than seeing my client succeed.

Thank you Stacy for the good thoughts. You are right - there are differences for the two roles.
I am glad that Servant Leadership simple model (as promoted also by the Greenleaf Institute) is addressing these differences: Servant-leaders identify and meet the needs of others -> Others perform at their highest potential -> Others fulfill the mission of the organisation and meet the needs of stakeholders ->The institution succeeds ->The organisation helps build a more caring and just society.

So, having success with and in the inter-personal relationships (among others) will definitely contribute to the success of the organisation.
And I am happy also when my client succeeds (even if, sometimes, in some situations, the "client" is actually my team).

Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed this article.

Dear Catalin
Interesting perspective on the topic: "Are we ready for Servant Leadership?"
Thanks for sharing

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