The word “servant” triggers (in many situations) goose-bumps on individuals aspiring to be leaders. We are wired to perceive it as a “status-reducing” label, as a way to mark the limits for a second-class role (or, even worse, an individual). Associating it with strong, powerful noun - like leadership or leader - doesn’t make it better.
In fact, in this case - servant leadership or servant leader - the term “servant” (officially, a noun) is perceived more like an adjective, diminishing the force of its more famous associate. I always look at people’s faces when this topic is brought to the table. I actually started a little experiment. When asked about what I am most passionate about and what my favourite speaking topic is, I answer first with “I am really into [or] I really like to speak about leadership…”. My conversational partner’s face lights up (“Oh, another one…” - he might be thinking) and he asks - ready to share and engage in a small debate - “What kind of leadership?”.
As soon as the “infamous” association - servant leadership - leaves my mouth, the just-created magic disappears. I can see disorientation and confusion in my interlocutor’s eyes. The comfortable smile is replaced by a suspicious scowl and, most probably, questions start popping into his or her mind - “What the hell is this? You are either a servant, or a leader. Are you mocking me?”
The reduction-effect of “servant” upon “leadership” - which I described earlier - is almost instantaneously present. Everybody loves Leadership and are willing to talk about this “amazing, sensible and always up-to date” topic. We need leaders and leadership. They are vital for our success, for our well-being, for our society. But...Servant Leadership? Servant Leaders? It seems to degrade the powerful noun.... leadership - as we were wired to perceive it.
We put our leaders on a really high pedestal. Even if they don’t want to be there, we elevate them. In many situations, this is the only way we can see (as in “perceive”) them as leaders. We need to see them at any moment, to have them in front, (literally) leading the way. Our leaders have to pull us and help us achieve a strong pace to the target. Otherwise, they are not the leaders we expected, the leaders who can take us there no matter what. How can we trust a leader who is actually behind us, gently pushing, not pulling and, most of all, serving us?
The way I see it, this sorry situation is triggered by two main factors:
As I recall, coming back to my little experiment, no conversation about Servant Leadership ends up in a dull, boring way. The majority of my interlocutors smile politely and either change the subject or excuse themselves, leave or engage in another conversation. I get it - we might not be ready for this. Re-wiring our brains can be hard and takes a long time.
However, I have seen individuals (it’s true, just a small percent) who were stirred and intrigued by the whole idea. Something sparked behind their eyes - maybe just enough to kick-off an internal revolution. This kind of “inception” is the one I am counting on. This is the one bringing more selflessness and less selfishness, more trust, more community and less individuality, more authority and so on and so forth.
The other day I was staying at my townhouse in Minnesota and was looking for something to eat for dinner. I searched the cabinets and refrigerator and settled on grilling a cheeseburger. Then the realization came to me that the task would be slightly difficult. Using a grill during the winter in the Midwest is possible when it is cold out, but this specific night it was -4F (with a “feels-like” temperature of -24F). So, while possible it is not the most inviting thing to do. So, I thought of my options and decided that I could make it inside on the stove. I thought to myself how hard could it be? When I was a kid, my mom always made cheeseburgers on the stove. And, while my mom has many amazing qualities and talents, let’s just say cooking is not necessarily at the top of the list.
Cooking started out fine. I cooked one side of the burger. When I lifted the lid of the frying pan and flipped the patty over there was some smoke coming from the pan, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I walked back to the stove to flip the burger back over, the “nothing out of the ordinary” smoke could only be described as being like a thick fog rolling in off of the ocean, or in this case billowing through the first floor of the townhouse.
I realized that the smoke detectors were going to go off if I didn’t act quickly. I obviously didn’t act fast enough because they went off one by one… since they were all connected. First floor, second floor, garage… While I was dashing around trying to figure out how to fan out the first floor I got really nervous about all of the other consequences of this smoke and the smoke detectors. For example, since the townhouse is in a community with other attached units and there are smoke detectors AND sprinklers in the ceiling, I wondered whether the sprinklers would go off and soak everything, not only in my townhouse but in the others around me? I managed to let the fog roll out by opening the garage door and front door to get a good cross breeze and slowly but surely the smoke detectors stopped. Besides it being a bit cold in the townhouse for a little while the crisis was diverted.
It got me thinking about the purpose of a smoke detector. And, at this point you may be wondering, “Why is he writing about this in a project management blog?” While I was grabbing my jacket to stay warm while the smoke subsided I started to think about the purpose of a smoke detector. It is to keep us safe and to alert us of potential fire. It isn’t a fire yet, but it is a system that is meant to tell us if we don’t act quickly we may have a fire. There isn’t a guarantee that the smoke will ever lead to flame, but it is certainly possible. And, because of technology, the connected systems give notice that something isn’t right and can alert the other systems around us.
In Project Management, we have a lot of different “smoke detectors” we employ purposefully or perhaps are there already even though we may not realize it. For example, we have Total Float in a schedule. This can alert us that activities on the Critical Path of a project could cause problems, but aren’t necessarily causing issues yet. Another example is Project Status Meetings. These meetings aren’t scheduled so we can sit around and tell each other what we have accomplished and in some cases waste our time, but to give the Project Team the opportunity to all meet and discuss potential areas of concern. In our personal and professional daily life, if you think about it, I believe there are a lot of areas where we can find our own “smoke detectors”.
So, tonight, when you are sitting around your house thinking, “I sure am glad I don’t have Graham here cooking dinner for me!”, also consider what types of detectors and alarms you may have on your projects and where you may want to add a few more. Getting to the smoke before there is flame can be a tremendous sigh of relief in the end.
Have you seen the last scene of “Zorba the Greek” movie?
If not, spoiler alert: two grown men, after witnessing the biggest failure of their only project, start to… dance. Actually, to be more precise, the boss (who invested all his money in the project that failed) asks his one and only employee (who was more like a project manager) to teach him to dance. No reproaches, no arguments, no unnecessary discussions – they just start dancing, with the boss following the moves of the employee. The dance is their way to connect in order to be able to express their feelings and to discuss objectively and freely about what just happened.
Dancing has several characteristics that facilitate an invisible powerful bonding between people that makes for a beautiful performance. Two of these characteristics really amaze me:
Of course, these are not the only bonding and performance characteristics of dancing. We need the right music, the right environment, the right partner and so on. However, as soon as we have the two mentioned above, more than 50% of the “job” is done. The dance becomes interesting, our performance is a good one and, most importantly, we enjoy it while connecting with our dance partner.
I think leadership should follow the same “recipe”. It should favour listening over speaking, willingness over forcing/pushing, authority over power. And, most importantly, it should create the right connection between the leader and the follower, a connection that allows both to express freely their feelings, concerns and ideas in order for both of them to grow and achieve success. Do you know of a leadership approach that can do all of this?
Spoiler alert (again): Servant Leadership is the “dance” we can perform every day, whether we are the leader or the follower.
OK - put on your ballroom best - ...1,2,3...Let’s dance!
Have you come across a Chinese idiom ”野人獻曝 “ Yěrén xiàn pù from Song during the Warring Period of China (around 400 BC)? The literal translation was “A peasant farmer wishes to present to the emperor the greatest benefit of the sun (the offer: when the sun shines on our backs keeps us warm and comfortable during the winter season)” It was obviously from the farmer’s perspective, not knowing that the emperor had a fur coat and was well provided for in the grand palace :-). This farmer’s naive realization from real life experiences then transcends the idiom into an expression of “providing a humble commonly-known small contribution to the elite”. With deep sincerity, this is what encouraged me to share with you today. I do treasure every moment when life is integrated and in harmony. All the best wishes for carrying out your goals with great results, and much success throughout the New Year and many more!
My first share is Daniel Goleman’s The Focused Leader for staying fit:
Daniel Goleman developed the five components of “emotional intelligence” and his 1995 book of the same title popularized the term and brought EQ to the bestseller’s list. We all can use a little more emotional intelligence to increase our wellbeing and our success. I highlight the Relationship Management as it touches upon the Inspirational Leadership, Developing Others, and Influence, being a Change Catalyst, Conflict Management, Building Bonds, and Teamwork & Collaboration while Social Awareness encompasses Empathy, Organizational Awareness and Service Orientation.
In this 2013 article at Harvard Business Review, Goleman discussed the three modes of attention as focusing on self, focusing on others and focusing on the wider world (similar to the Chinese classics “The Great Learning”: the progression to create harmony in the world. “禮記大學”：格物、致知、誠意、正心、修身、齊家、治國、平天下). Goleman stated “Every leader needs to cultivate this triad of awareness, in abundance and in the proper balance, because a failure to focus inwards leaves you rudderless, a failure to focus on others renders you clueless, and a failure to focus outward may leave you blindsided.”
Goleman further elaborated "the Empathy Triad" in focusing on others as it is more than just a single attribute. They are: Cognitive empathy - the ability to understand another person's perspective; Emotional empathy - the ability to feel what someone else feels; Empathic concern - the ability to sense what another person needs from you.
Goleman concludes, "A focused leader is not the person concentrating on the three most important priorities of the year, or the most brilliant systems thinker, or the one most in tune with the corporate culture. Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can week out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions."
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to focus when and where we need our skills and competence the most for leadership effectiveness? The world needs more focused leaders. It all takes practice and diligence. Let’s continue the journey and keep going!
My second share is the 38 ways yoga keeps fit:
We need to be willing to exercise our brain with the attention and intent and staying fit emotionally as well as physically for the whole body. This leads to my sharing of the 38 ways yoga improves health: a personal experience and research from Timothy McCall, MD. This is the most comprehensive list I have come across. Besides healing and building strength, yoga helps us better serve others.
Maybe it will inspire us to spring into action. Take the 30-day challenge. No matter what kind of sports or exercises you enjoy, simply keep it up and do it regularly with friends or with smiles. Life is better when we stay fit and in harmony. I am very thankful. It will be a beautiful and fantastic year! Namaste!
Culturally, women have been educated to serve. At least in my generation this has been that way.
From little kids, our games have to do with the care of others. When they give us dolls that we pretend are our children, we play to feed them, dress them, take care of them.
When we play to be a teacher, we develop our protection and care for our fictional or even, sometimes real students.
In my case, I was fortunate to have many siblings, and the students of my games were flesh and blood. My younger siblings were the victims of my first practices in teaching. And, maybe I was a good teacher, or maybe they were very clever, but the truth is that they learned very well and very fast.
And not only in games were women influenced to service to others. Girls also had to help Mom in the housework, help Mom to serve the table, and be on the lookout for everything Dad and brothers needed.
That is to say that we have very much incorporated service to others as part of our "being woman".
I do not want to judge whether this is good or bad.
I do not have enough knowledge to know if we do good or bad in continuing to give dolls to our own daughters and let them play as a teacher.
What I do want to rescue, is that women who grew up in that environment, are naturally prepared to serve.
And, as a result, female leadership has a much to do with servant leadership.
Women leaders often look out for other people, care about their well-being, what they need, and how they can help themselves grow.
Many authors assign to women the characteristics of being more sociable, with a greater tendency for cooperation, inclusion and care of people, forming teams that look like families.
We know that it was Robert K. Greenleaf, who in the 1970s coined the term "servant leader" - helpful leadership or service leadership, inspired by the book "Journey to the East" by Herman Hesse, where a group of travelers Travel and take a servant to perform the less important tasks. The interesting thing is that when the servant leaves them, they cannot continue. Greenleaf finds in this novel that the leadership of the journey was exercised by the servant, in silence, and from his tasks of service to others, he was the true leader of the group.
As stated on the Center for Servant Leadership- Robert K. Greenleaf website, "The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead... ".
From the above, I think we can say that in general women leaders naturally develop a style of servant leadership as a result of our training of women by women.
To conclude, I would like to recall a phrase from a great woman leader, a servant leader par excellence, Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
"He who does not live to serve, does not serve to live”.