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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Cameron McGaughy
Catalin Dogaru
Mike Frenette
Suzan Cho
Jonathan Lee
Tolga Özel
Graham Briggs
Cecilia Boggi

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Making Connections while Missing Connections

Traveling as much as I do, I have learned that airports don’t have to be the worst, most stressful place to be during a delayed flight.  Sure, I could wax poetic about my top five favorite airports and of course the least favorite airports, but I think anyone who flies has those lists ready for conversation.  I am writing this post to highlight one particular occasion that occurred a few weeks ago and how it impacted not only my day and night, but most importantly my personal relationships at home.

Those of you in the U.S., have probably heard about the Delta Airlines delays that affected the whole country in April of this year.  If you didn’t hear about it, it might be due to the other airline controversies that took over the news.  I fly pretty regularly and was headed home on a Thursday evening traveling from Atlanta to Boston. As soon as the weather turned for the worse earlier that day, the delays started piling up.  When I arrived at the airport, my flight was already delayed and scheduled to leave 5 hours later so I figured I may as well make myself comfortable and get a bite to eat.  As I walked into the Terminal, I saw more people and longer lines than I have ever seen in Atlanta (and that’s saying a lot for such a very busy airport), so I knew it was going to be a long night.  

I got through security and located my gate and the closest restaurant.  As I sat down to order, I listened to all the chatter from everyone around me.  Eventually, I ended up getting into a great conversation with the person sitting next to me.  Within a few minutes, we found that we both had the same job title but at different companies in the Northeast.  Immediately we shared business stories, some strategies about how we handle varying situations, and overall the conversation was going great.

When we were out of business topics, we started talking about family and how we were both excited to get home to see them (whenever that may be due to the delays).  It turned out that he and I had daughters of similar age (9 and 10).  After going through some of our fun anecdotal stories, sharing pictures of our kids and so on, the conversation turned to a computer game called Minecraft - a virtual world where the player either joins in an existing location or builds their own version.  Since I have an older son who played this years ago I was familiar with it, but had never understood the draw to it.  I found the graphics weren’t nearly as nice as other games, the directions were sometimes difficult to understand, and overall I was unable to understand why my son was wasting so much time playing it.  But my newly found friend had a whole different outlook.  He saw tremendous benefits from this game and was more than happy to explain them to me.  I was fascinated that there was so much more to it than I ever knew, such as how a young person can develop insights into their physical worlds as well as even some basic Project Management techniques.

As the dinner ended and we parted ways, I knew I had to learn more about this game and see if my daughter knew anything about what he was talking about. Eighteen hours later as I arrived home, right about the same time my daughter did from school (yes, the flight delays were indeed brutal enough to push my arrival home by a day), I started asking questions about the game.  I was mesmerized by how much she knew and how to play it.  She has a whole virtual world she created and plays in with a good friend.  Since that day, she has even creatively built a house out of blocks to my specifications in her virtual world.

If you have gotten this far into my article, you may be wondering, “Why is he writing this story?”  Here’s why: it made me realize missed or delayed airline connections provide an opportunity to make many other valuable connections.  Since that adventure, I now regularly listen to my daughter explain her virtual world, its latest “crisis” and how she plans to address it.  Just this morning she was trying to save one of her virtual animals from falling off of a cliff!

It saddens me that I can’t take back all the time years ago when I naïvely dismissed my son’s interests in Minecraft rather than using it to become closer to him and learn more about his character.  It has certainly opened a whole new connection between my daughter and me.  Those of you with young, inquisitive children the age of mine know it is sometimes difficult to get beyond one-word answers when trying to connect or engage in discussion. .  My daughter and I now discuss the challenges and happiness she experiences in her virtual world, giving me insights I would never have gained otherwise. I have the feeling the same is true for her.  

So, the next time you miss an airline connection and are trying to pass the time, I hope you too are able to make a new connection, learn from that temporary travelling colleague and then apply the lesson with someone much closer to you at home.  You never know how it may change your life - it changed mine!

Posted by Graham Briggs on: May 25, 2017 05:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Born to be a...(Servant) Leader

Parents have great dreams for their children. As soon as we hold our child, for the first time, it seems that an unbeatable “contract” is signed: parents - the “supplier” - will offer all available resources for the child - the “client” - to succeed. It is an “open-ended” contract as it doesn’t have clear targets, goals, ambitions, or even desires. Parents don’t know if they “raise” a doctor, a fireman or a project manager. But, with few exceptions, they know their child will be a fantastic or a great - doctor, fireman etc.. She or he has to be fantastic or great since we - the parents, the “supplier” - are all in. We offer everything and we don’t expect anything but success.

And how do we know that he or she will be great? Or that our full-of-uncertainty endeavor will be successful?

Again, with few exceptions, parents will make the supreme argument - in a magnificent, but really concerning, consensus: that we raise them to be leaders. No matter the area, field, range, territory of operations, our kids will be leaders and will do great.

In plain and simple “contract” terms, in this situation, “being a leader” translates into: get above the others, acquire and utilize your amazing competencies that some others may have also, but they cannot “use” them as you do.  You need to show the path to others, but always be “number one”. In a nutshell, be a leader first and we - as parents - can guarantee a big rate of success.

I don’t want to fight this wrong (in my opinion) attitude. Every parent has the right to dream big for his or her child. And, at the same time, he or she has the right to try to fulfill this dream in his or her own manner.

However, following “the leader first” logic in a Servant Leadership context, I was wondering:

How can we teach Servant Leadership to our children?

This question arises almost in every discussion/webinar/conference on the Servant Leadership. The whole philosophy of Servant Leadership is based on “Serve First”. A Servant Leader is a leader but without being “number one”. He or she will exercise a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will” (Jim Collins) in order to engage and develop others. “Get above the others” means, in a Servant Leadership context, to find the right and correct way to serve “the others” in order to become a great leader. 

Coming back to the unbeatable “contract” and its expectations, a Servant Leadership approach seems to contradict the “big dream” path. It suspiciously “reduces” personal visibility and promotes humility instead of (supposedly, a more penetrating) aggressiveness. Most of all, it rules out the power-positioned leadership (based on coercion, force and position) for an authority-situated one. Personal influence and trust are the most important currencies “traded” in this latter approach. They replace the former final and recurrent argument “I am your appointed boss”. Instead of an almighty position to make people do my will, I - the doctor, the lawyer, the project manager, etc…, will influence them to get the job done willingly. It doesn’t sound fantastic or great anymore, does it?

For me, it sounds...amazing. To have my daughter leading people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good is something I would be happy to promote. I am all in for helping her learn how to be “others-focused” (Jim Collins) and how to become a strong professional that will do the right thing for her people and for her organization. This way, for sure, she will build great character traits and be a...fantastic Servant Leader.       

You shouldn’t worry, the infamous question from above hasn’t been forgotten. Addressed again, but more personalized, it will be:

How can I teach Servant Leadership to my child?

Actually, paradoxically, I can’t! She has to see if this is the right journey for her. I will present her the “available” options from out-there and offer all my help (based on my experiences). And all of these (again) so she can choose the leader she wants to be. I will be a true Servant Leader for her. It is tougher this way. But - for me - it seems the right way to do it in order to leave the choice for her life to the rightful owner – my daughter.

Are you ready, as a “supplier”, to do the same in both your personal and professional life?

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: January 14, 2016 07:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

SERVE, but don't forget to LEAD

“A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” (Martin Luther King Jr.).

Once again, using a powerful and profound image, Dr. King summarized the right “posture” of a Servant-Leader: ready to “carry” the followers, to help them “reach” their “destinations” (their life goals). However, the quote has a very interesting approach, not so easy to spot: ONLY your back should be bent JUST ENOUGH to allow the journey. There should be nothing demeaning or humiliating in this gesture or in this posture for the Servant-Leader and it shouldn’t be considered as such by the people around him or her.

This is one of the challenges of becoming a Servant-Leader and, moreover, of implementing the Servant-Leadership model in different organizations. Due to its characteristics (listen and understand, show empathy, be aware, lend a helping hand etc), Servant-Leadership is seen as a “softer” approach than any other traditional leadership approach. Competitive times - like the ones we experience nowadays - bring strong prejudices such as a leader must be tough, maybe even aggressive (if needed), ready to impose and direct people (for their “own good”) to the right path. There is no time to “listen” and “understand” completely. Leaders should be (and this is one of the most common prejudices that I encountered) concentrating on actions and less on feelings.

The Servant-Leadership approach is contradicting this trend - taking care of the feelings and then getting to actions. This is why - as I saw on several occasions - Servant-Leadership is seen as a good and interesting thing, but not fit (in terms of “power”) for the cloudy world we live in.

And this is, actually….correct. Servant-Leadership is promoting authority, not power. It is based on the skill of getting people to willingly perform because of the leader’s personal influence. Moreover, James Hunter (in “The Servant”) describes the Servant-Leader more as a “pit bull”, who “hugs hard and spanks hard”. When “it’s time to appreciate, honor and value team”, the Servant-Leader is the “first in line”. But, when the team has to perform,  true Servant-Leaders “demand excellence and have little tolerance for mediocrity”.


So, we are not soft. Not even close. We, as Servant-Leaders, are ready to move things in the right direction, engage people and motivate teams. But, at the same time, we are not doing this using the “power” whip and, more important, we always have  in mind our followers’ best interest. We do serve, but we never forget to lead.

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: October 28, 2015 06:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)
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