Servant Leadership: Serve to Be Great

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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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Acting out...as a leader?

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Viewing Posts by Catalin Dogaru

Acting out...as a leader?

“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.

But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).

And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.

As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want  to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.

Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?

That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you  experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.  

Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.

Oh, this is such an illusion…

Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.

Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.

However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.

  1. Self-awareness -  we need to know who we are. We have to understand our fears, our regrets and our insecurities. If it’s not possible to solve them, we have to, at least, learn how to cope with them. Most of the conflicts and harmed relationships come from projecting our raw “bad” emotions onto the “opponent”, emotions usually coming from unresolved (childhood) issues (lack of love, rejection, feelings of not being valued, etc.). . Getting to know all of these and understanding them will bring the necessary balance for us to exist and perform in an efficient and effective manner.

  2. Collaboration - we are not alone. There is too much self-centeredness among individuals. Everyone wants to protect - at all costs - his/her “self-interest”. The laws of physics are pretty clear - pressure equals force divided by area. So, as soon as the “area” is smaller, the pressure gets bigger. Dealing with all the external “forces” alone (unrealistic deadlines, low budgets, bad bosses etc.) will bring too much pressure on the individual, making her/him prone to cave. Having a team with whom to collaborate will deflect the pressure to a larger area, making it more bearable and easier to handle.

  3. Vulnerability - we are not Supermen or Superwomen. Usually, anger comes as a means of protecting your vulnerabilities . Learning how to “let go”, be open, and divulging your feelings is a huge step. In the last century, we encouraged rationality while we tried to avoid anything that cannot be explained scientifically (like emotions or pain). Therefore, any “wounds” that don’t have a tangible cause (such as  from a lack of love or respect) are avoided or “treated” superficially. And these are the “wounds” that last and affect every aspect of our lives.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears:  all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship;  being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.

To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least,  acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.

Are you up for it?

 

 

 

 
Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: December 06, 2017 07:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Love that tiger

There is an old saying in the Medical  world - “There are no healthy individuals in the world. The ones that pretend to be must have been insufficiently examined for physical and/or psychological issues”. And, for the latter, the “usual” split is between “neurotics and persons with character disorders”.

Neurotics are individuals who assume too much responsibility and, when in conflict, they always blame themselves. Their speeches are full of phrases like: “I ought to”, “I should/shouldn’t” - illustrating their assumed “inferiority” doubled always by (what they feel that are) wrong decisions.  Au contraire, individuals with character disorders run away from responsibility and, in conflict, they always blame “the world”. The speech of an individual with character disorder will rely on “I can’t/couldn’t” or “I have/had to”, always accusing “no power of choice” and the external forces that act beyond his or her control. There is also a combination - called “character neurotics” - describing individuals who fail to find the balance in assuming responsibility in different situations.

In fact, the whole classification is built around responsibility and the pain and effort that this might bring. Assuming it too much and at a wrong time can bring a lot of bad consequences (and associated pain). Running away from it in crucial moments can ruin everything - results, relationships etc. Finding the right balance constitutes one of the most difficult problems of our lives.  

And, unfortunately, nowadays, existing environments don’t make it easier for us. All around us, there are forces that exert pressure and these forces are getting bigger and bigger: tighter deadlines, higher payments, greater expectations etc. We start to feel psychologically unsafe and either attempt to pass the responsibility to other individuals/organisations or assume too much, get too exposed and burn out quickly in a huge amount of stress.

Responsibility has become the “tiger in the room”. We either run like hell from it or jump  in front of it, waiting to be eaten. As soon as we no longer have the instruments - the whip and chair - to tame the tiger and to show our power, we run and hide or expose and accept the fate. Instead, we should use our authority and try to cope, dominate and even, love the “tiger”.

In this last case, the effort is huge. It requires discipline, a lot less ego and more emotion than rationality.  We suffer more and gratification is delayed. However, this way our self-growth will get a boost and, most importantly, as leaders, we will be ready to help and nurture our team members’ growth/development.

Let me recap: use authority instead of power, delay gratification to obtain a more sustainable result, less ego (other-focused), more emotion and feelings and, most of all, loving that “tiger” - knowing when/what is your responsibility and when/how to let it go and trust your team, your peers, your colleagues. For me (at least), this sounds a lot like Servant Leadership.

How about you - Are you ready to take responsibility and “love the tiger”?

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: June 09, 2017 03:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Now, we are free

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:

  1. Our human wiring triggers our constant need to win. We have to prove that we are better than the other person, we have to be the alpha dog (as individuals, as teams, as countries etc.). And this can be proven easily just by taking a quick look around us - in our history, in our schools, in our companies. But, in order to win, we need...a strong leader. Actually, we need her or him to be stronger (more powerful) than the other leaders. And this seems impossible when she or he exhibits servant characteristics like humility, kindness, patience, forgiveness etc. Where is the power in these?

  2. We tend to trust our vision more than any other feeling.Therefore, it’s not enough to know that there is somebody there who has our back. We need to see him or her. That leader placed in front makes us feel protected. The group (by itself) might not be trustworthy. However, having the leader take control and direct/impose the way forward makes us feel safe (mainly, because we can see him or her there, in front, exuding power). How can we “feel safe” when we hear Servant Leadership principles like trusting the group, bearing others’ interests in mind, using the “force” of the group and making sure that we all reach our destination, while our understated leader exercises authority (not power) somewhere from behind the group and not in front?

        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.


We can be both “servants” and “leaders” - we need only to feel we have the freedom and encouragement to be a leader - a Servant Leader - to recognize that spark in ourselves.

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: March 22, 2017 04:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Teach me to dance, will you?

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:

  1. When two individuals are dancing, it is common practice for one to lead while the other one follows. However, the latter is actually willing to follow. Moreover, she/he expects to be lead from the moment she/he engaged in this “task” (dancing).

  2. We all know that non-verbal communication is the highest percentage in every interaction we have, transmitting more information than any other form of communication. In fact, dancing increases this percentage. When we dance, we speak less and we move more. We need, at the same time, to be careful of our moves and, most importantly, to be tuned in to our partner’s moves. In dancing, we “listen” more in order to be sure that our performance is the best sowe both succeed -  whether  we are the leader of the follower.

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!

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: January 09, 2017 03:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Motivate me...if you can!

European Soccer Championship ended recently. Leaving aside the flashy shows and the mediocre organisation, I was really puzzled by the difference in several teams’ behaviors. And this is not about their (sometimes boring) technical performance. This is, actually, related more to the (so-called) soft, human side of their achievements.

Let me tell a short story. More than 15 years ago during another European Championship, one of the qualified team was excluded (the name is not important) due to some political issues. . Officials replaced them with a runner up team from the qualifying stages. These guys were already on vacation, enjoying (literally) a really hot summer at the beach. They managed to get together in an unbelievably short period of time. But, their main goal for the Championship was basically to not make a fool of themselves. They had almost no training, they barely assembled a team of twenty young and not so famous players and, at the same time, they were tired after a very long season.

The first match was a disaster. They were butchered by the opposing team and showed a lot of weaknesses. Everybody was laughing and gave them no chances of winning even one game. But, they actually did it: they won the next one. And the next one. And the next one. And so the pattern continued.. They made it into the finals and...won the Championship! I repeat - with almost no training or practice games, with the smallest team of all teams in the competition and, most surprisingly, with young and obscure players. They managed to go against many odds and beat teams with a lot of notorious and famous members.

Many experts dissected and tried to explain this unforeseen success. Motivation, team spirit, strong desire - these were a few of the critical factors that were pushed as the foundation of the outsiders’ winning strategy. However, for me, something was missed or, at least, less explored. It’s related again to motivation and I saw it againat the recently-ended Championship.

The specialists credit as favorites for winning the tournament the teams with the biggest number of famous, skilled players. As soon as a national team has a lot of well-known, valuable players who won many international competitions (with their club team), it is automatically considered powerful and ready to win. Still, nobody is wondering if the team members can still be motivated and engaged.

They have everything - money, fame, prizes. They even won (take Spain example) a European and a World Championship. Even more, they come after long seasons, they want vacation and a large part of them are almost at the end of their prestigious career.

What strategy should the coach use in order to make that interior “engine” run one more time? “Money and fame” means little to these players. Transferring to another team? 90% of them already play or played at the biggest soccer clubs around the world. So, is there anything that can move them?

I could find only one answer - servant leadership. Helping others to grow, inspiring people, becoming appreciated and caring leaders - these might be (probably) the only triggers that would work in this situation. For mature, great players, the possibility of being servant leaders would ignite a big internal “fire”. They already have the tangible. They need the inner, intangible push in order to feel motivated. Hailing their authority (and not the power) will bring the desired thirst for fighting and winning every match again.

It might not be the only solution. But, we definitely should try it. I am pretty confident that we will move from “I need to be here” to “I want to be here” attitude. And then, for sure, we will have a more interesting tournament. Do you agree?

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: July 12, 2016 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)
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