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”?
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.
As most of you are aware, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines Project Management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” After a summer of fun, I couldn’t help but think that while I manage projects in various areas in my business life, I am surrounded by successful Project Managers every day in my personal life, and so are others. Each and every day you can pick up any newspaper and read a story about projects that were completed, but Project Management is often used as a “scapegoat”. Sure, there are tons of successful projects and most are because Project Management was timely because the Project teams focus on meeting or beating cost, schedule, or scope. But, it made me wonder why we fail so often at something we do so frequently.
So, back to my summer of fun. I had the opportunity to do so many things with my family. Each and every summer I get to go to my favorite place on earth, Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. I am fortunate to have a close group of family members who are able to join every year. There are the usual 15-20 cousins, aunts, and uncles, but we also are lucky enough to have another 15-20 family members who come every few years. Why am I telling you all of this? It’s because I had an epiphany with regards to how much Project Management comes into play when this week comes around. I thought it would be fun to look at the five process groups that entail Project Management Processes (Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, and Closing) and how they really make a successful trip.
As an aside, my immediate family can identify with others living with a Project Manager, especially because of my usual PM focus, but there are occasions where it comes in handy. To give you an idea of how far I have gone, a few years ago I created a spreadsheet for our Disney World visit. You may laugh out loud or more than likely roll your eyes at this point, but I stand by my idiosyncrasies because my family each had requests of what they wanted to see and what they wanted to do. With some timely use of the processes I have learned through the years, everyone was able to see what they wished to see; be it a princess, a parade, or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride.
For those who don’t know about Chatham or Cape Cod, it can be treated like any other vacation spot and has tourist traps galore. With upwards of 40 family members all vacationing at once, planning is of utmost importance to avoid those tourist traps. So, on to the initiating phase. There are a handful of us that have been coming here for over 35 years so we usually are the ones who focus on some of the requirements. My older cousin and I usually are the ones who try to sort through all of these requirements since we are part of the original group. However, it’s not to say that we make all of the decisions without input. We need to make sure we take into consideration some of the constraints. This includes pleasing the younger cousins who always have a say in where we go and what they want to see. And there are also the older family members who may have some restrictions such as how mobile they are so care needs to be taken in where we go for some of the all-in family nights (bbq’s, beach nights, and dinner locations). Meeting both the young and the old is always a challenge, but usually dictates the execution, or whatever the activity is, of each phase.
With the use of text messages, plain old sticky notes and scratched notes on sides of old newspapers, we are always able to monitor and control how things are going. And one of the most efficient and relaxing ways of planning at the end of each night is to sit around a fire pit, roasting s’mores or enjoying ice cream and discussing not only how things went that day, but also looking ahead to the next few days. For the newcomers, the veterans of our family vacation always give options based on feedback to try for the next day. All of these Project Management tools come into play way more than I ever thought about. And, with most project close outs it is done with handshakes, hugs and the soon to be patented, “Corcoran sendoff”.
So, what makes all of this possible each and every year with so many people? It is due to the strength of family, but it is also due to the PM skills inherent in us as Project Managers. We are able to successfully get the most out of vacation each and every time because of the process. Sure, we don’t follow the PMBOK for each and everything we do in life, but it sure helps us all in areas that aren’t necessarily sitting at a desk or on a project site. Next time you set out on a family vacation I implore you to think of this approach and see if it might help avoid some sad faces, just like you want to avoid those faces in your professional life.
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?