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.
I was thinking the other day about a seminar I went to a number of years ago. It was about presenting to groups of people and the best approaches to take. It was a two day crash course in learning techniques - the ins and outs of using MS PowerPoint to the best of its ability and how to find ways to keep the audience engaged. It was enlightening to me to find so many areas that I could improve upon with simple changes or modifications to how I already present. I must admit that I still need lots of practice, but it was a great start. It helped me present at a PMI LIM conference in Vancouver. It has enabled me to realize that I can constantly tweak my approach in order to better present the material, whether it’s a slideshow or computer-based training.
Another part of the presentation that they gave to us was the margin of error between 1st and 2nd place in a number of areas is usually under 2%. Let me try to give an explanation of what they meant by 2%. If you are providing a bid for a job it is more than likely going to come down to a 2% difference between the group that won the job and the runner-up. As you watch the Olympics this summer the difference between a Gold Medal and Silver Medal in swimming events or track and field events is going to be less than a 2% variance. So, why do I think about the 2% very often? Well, in the business realm I equate it to a number of areas.
As leaders and/or project managers, we are likely going to be involved in putting together a proposal or presenting the proposal to a client. This is where the 2% can help you. Take a third or fourth look at the proposal package and see if there are areas to improve. I think you will be surprised at how many things can be improved upon with only slight modifications and not take too much more of your time.
However, some of the improvements will not be so obvious. I think that sometimes we get into a routine where training, while extremely important, can be perceived as time consuming or taking away from where the “money is made”.
Let me address the word training to perhaps get you to think about it in a different light. If you are a novice athlete, or perhaps you like to follow a favorite professional athlete, you will find that training for a soccer game may not involve a soccer field and in some cases may not even involve a soccer ball. Athletes train for a sporting event by doing other things. Some may choose to run or lift weights to get in shape, some may choose to study film or notes on the opponent before facing them, and others may even play a different sport altogether in order to work muscle groups that aren’t part of the sport they compete in.
Now, let’s compare that same approach to business. If you are a project manager, it may help you to read books and attend training sessions on project management, but it also can’t hurt to try to cross-train your mind and take a leadership course or even an administrative course to brush up on typing skills. For me, I am constantly looking to cross-train in a multitude of areas. By education, I have my Bachelor’s Degree and Professional Engineering License in Civil/Environmental Engineering, but I found early on in my career that I constantly liked to learn new things so I decided to jump into consulting roles in various areas, most of which had nothing to do with my formal education. I loved it and once I took the jump I felt comfortable in my surroundings and could make a positive contribution. I also realized that cross-training helped me find ways of understanding the many facets of things. Now, the cross-training that I did in those situations was long-term and obviously took time to accomplish great things. However, there are quicker, easier ways to improve. For example, every few weeks I jump onto an app that pulls all types of articles and stories from various magazines and websites. I always am able to find great articles by a variety of authors and save them on our company’s shared drive for everyone to view. These articles range in topics from leadership, to self-improvement, and even as far-fetched as lifehacks for around the house or office.
It’s amazing to me that going to a two-day seminar for presentations would lead to so many future changes in my career - and even my life for that matter. I guess it was all about how they took the extra 2% in how they presented to get me hooked on improving, I find if I constantly try to reach for areas where I can improve, I will always be striving to be on the top of the 2% variance and not wishing I had done more after the fact. What are some things you do to improve and/or to stay on top in your position?
I was fortunate to begin my career on the most expensive highway project in the United States, The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also referred to by the Boston locals as the Big Dig). For those that don’t know, this was a mega-project in Boston that rerouted the major Interstate from above ground to below ground. The final costs to complete exceeded $16 Billion. Indeed, with a project of this size there was bound to be at least some problems. Most of these issues led to escalating costs, schedule issues, and questionable execution. However, after all was said and done, it has led to much more enjoyable harbor front views, public parks and allowed the interstate to run underground throughout the city. Back then, I had very little appreciation for what I was learning and what I was a part of.
When I started working, I had an eyes wide open approach to everything at all times. However, even though this project was the most expensive in the US, I knew nothing different in the Engineering and Project Management world. I thought this was normal and would be like the rest of the projects that I would be on. Twenty years later, I look back and realize that I probably won’t be on such a project again and if one comes around, I probably will treat it a bit different with regards to my appreciation for it. However, I also remember that I wanted to learn. I wanted to get the most out of it. So, I steered towards the people that had been on the project a long time and felt I could learn the most from them. By definition mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge and support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development. Little did I know back then that this would be my first opportunity to have many mentors. I didn’t know what a mentor was back then. I guess I thought that a mentor would be someone who would come to me in a graduation cap and gown, sit with me, teach me the ropes and not let me fail.
Within my first month, I started asking more questions. I remember sitting in my first large program level meeting and being in awe of the knowledge the team members had. While I was nervous, I learned quickly that these people… these mentors... were all around me and wanted to help me be all I could be. That being said, I was very fortunate to have an amazing boss at the time. His name was Al and while I had no idea at the time what he was to me, looking back he was the first mentor to whom I always found myself turning when I had questions or concerns and wanted to seek his approval on what I was doing.
My first recollection of finding out that a 20-something didn’t know-it-all was on a simple task of providing a construction overview schedule for Al for an executive meeting he was going to be attending. I was so proud of myself. I was ecstatic that I had completed this task with little or no help and thought what I had done was perfect and required no editing. Little did I know, that was one of Al’s first tests for me. I handed over my printout the morning of the meeting thinking I was all set. Al thanked me and said he would review it. I thought to myself, “Review it?!… It’s perfect. It shouldn’t need any review. It’s ‘good-to-go’”. About an hour later he called me over to his desk. He had markings all over it. The one comment that has stuck with me out of all of the edits was that the coloring that I had chosen was all wrong. He then explained to me that the executives would think it was too busy and would not be forceful enough for the message that it was portraying. Now, he didn’t make me feel bad or feel like I failed, but he made suggestions on the basis that I could improve my messaging. For years after I left that first job, I turned to Al for direction and even approval on my career decisions. To this day, whenever I provide a dashboard or report I think back to this comment and still try to improve upon my deliverable.
Mentoring can come in all shapes and sizes. It can occur when you least expect it or when you have signed up for a mentoring program. Our local PMI Chapter has a great mentoring program of which many people take advantage. When they are done they are so glad they went through it. Many of the mentors and mentees are first timers. They also don’t have to be mentors who are perfectly aligned with the mentee’s main line of duties. I am currently mentoring a handful of supervisors. I find that while they can run circles around me on many of their day to day responsibilities, I am able to provide them with some guidance, more specifically in the Project Management profession since they have no formal training or formal PM education. They find out about things that may help right away or even a year from now, much like Al did for me.
In conclusion, I urge any and all of you to get involved with mentoring, either with your own company, with your PM organization, or even with old colleagues. Mentoring entails communication which we all know is usually the area of breakdown in most conflicts.
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?
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?