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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Strategy Formulation is not Strategy Delivery

A recent question on Quora prompted me to spend 20 minutes writing an answer because I believe it to be a critically important question.

The question was "How is strategic management used in project execution?" I didn't really want to answer that question, so I indulged myself and changed it to “How does project management fit with strategic management?”

Organizations must have a strategy. If they don’t, let’s just stop the conversation here.

Strategy needs to have a plan of execution. It is of no use for a bunch of executives to fly to some resort somewhere and dream up a strategy, then fly back, dispersing it to the minions, expecting that they will run off in all directions implementing it exactly as they envisioned. Strategy without execution is no more than a puff of smoke. It is where the rubber meets the sky, as we used to say at Michelin Tires.

Now let’s talk about projects. This is where the rubber meets the road. Others may have said that Projects are used to execute a strategy, and therefore must be aligned with the strategy.

I take a slightly different view. That is, Portfolios of Programs and Projects must align with the Strategic Intent of the organization.

Portfolios are often based on business units, answering the question “To be successful, what set of Programs and Projects must my part of the organization execute over this period of time, and for which I have funding, in order to meet the business goals set out for my part of the organization, interleaving with other parts of the organization?” The period of time may be a year, three years, five years or more; or changing continuously as in Agile Organizations - another topic.)

So you might ask, “What is a Program, then?”. I’m glad you asked.

A Program is a series of inter-related, and possibly inter-dependent projects, all of which must be executed to achieve a business benefit or set of benefits. That is, if any one of the projects is not executed (not necessarily at the same time), the business benefit cannot be achieved.

So - Projects are part of Programs (and for various reasons, if we define it this way, we must also say that a Program may contain many Projects or even only one Project). Projects deliver products, usually on time, on budget and to the desired level of quality using either traditional (predictive) or Agile (adaptive) methods. Products of projects are used to realize the benefits defined in the strategy and in this way set the stage for delivery of benefits, albeit not the actual benefits themselves. Benefits Realization Management is another topic for another day.

So how does all this answer the [modified] question?

Strategy is a must-have for any organization. Implementation or execution of Strategy has to be funded and planned. The best way to do this, in my view, is through Business-defined Portfolios containing Programs and Projects, that are created to be in lock-step with the Strategy, and through which executives who created the strategy cause their vision to become a reality.

It goes without saying that executives who implement their Strategies this way must provide the organizational resources required: their personal support, funding, people, and careful attention to change and how it will impact the organization. This raises the specter of Organizational Change Management, also a topic for another day.

I believe executives who set strategy and then empower their people to deliver it, providing the required resources and support whenever they need it, represent the epitome of Servant Leaders. Set the direction, trust your people and give them what they need to do the job.

What do you think? What is happening in your organizations? Is strategy delivery baked into your DNA? Or is it an annual talk about corporate vision that does little but excite people for a few hours a year?

Posted by Mike Frenette on: June 21, 2019 01:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

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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