Project Management

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!

About this Blog


View Posts By:

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

Recent Posts

Strategy Formulation is not Strategy Delivery

Project Management is All Around Us!

The Servant Leadership Way: Virtues that bring Results

Acting a leader?

The Elusive PMO

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 (8)

Lead with Compassion and through Trust and Ownership

In a complex and ever changing environment, would you trust someone who's answer is a definite "I know" or someone who said "I don't know" with a degree of certainty? Be a thinker. Ask "Why?"!

In an ideal world when everything is known, traditional Project Management (waterfall in the field of software development) and Command & Control authoritative style organizations may work (in the low trust and low ownership environment) for a while. Now, let's qualify that: everything is relative and it truly depends deeply on the experiences of the team, the objectives and the results one wishes to obtain.

Above the mundane, I advocate building The Agile Culture, Leading through Trust and Ownership (a book I highly recommended), practice principle based learning and distributed leadership (as in servant leadershiplead without a title and with self-organizing teams of professionals). The choice to serve and to lead is not something we do; it is an expression of our being.

I will share with you the valuable Trust-Ownership Model from The Agile Culture book mentioned above by Pollyanna Pixton, Paul Gibson and Niel Kickolaisen. Amazing things happen when you lead as an enabler, not manage as a controller.

Allow me to end with a quote from Lao-Tzu.

“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Let's see the world as a mirror reflection of ourselves and start with self-compassion, value diverse opinions, and as Skip Prichard had it: "Leading with Others In Mind".

May our world be full of magical moments when all involved treasure the experiences and become better servant leaders because of us!


Posted by Suzan Cho on: July 27, 2016 06:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

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 (7)

Are we ready for Servant Leadership?

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?

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: April 13, 2016 05:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

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 (15)

"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

- Albert Einstein