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!

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

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Acting a leader?

“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.

But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).

And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.

As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want  to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.

Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?

That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you  experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.  

Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.

Oh, this is such an illusion…

Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.

Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.

However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.

  1. Self-awareness -  we need to know who we are. We have to understand our fears, our regrets and our insecurities. If it’s not possible to solve them, we have to, at least, learn how to cope with them. Most of the conflicts and harmed relationships come from projecting our raw “bad” emotions onto the “opponent”, emotions usually coming from unresolved (childhood) issues (lack of love, rejection, feelings of not being valued, etc.). . Getting to know all of these and understanding them will bring the necessary balance for us to exist and perform in an efficient and effective manner.

  2. Collaboration - we are not alone. There is too much self-centeredness among individuals. Everyone wants to protect - at all costs - his/her “self-interest”. The laws of physics are pretty clear - pressure equals force divided by area. So, as soon as the “area” is smaller, the pressure gets bigger. Dealing with all the external “forces” alone (unrealistic deadlines, low budgets, bad bosses etc.) will bring too much pressure on the individual, making her/him prone to cave. Having a team with whom to collaborate will deflect the pressure to a larger area, making it more bearable and easier to handle.

  3. Vulnerability - we are not Supermen or Superwomen. Usually, anger comes as a means of protecting your vulnerabilities . Learning how to “let go”, be open, and divulging your feelings is a huge step. In the last century, we encouraged rationality while we tried to avoid anything that cannot be explained scientifically (like emotions or pain). Therefore, any “wounds” that don’t have a tangible cause (such as  from a lack of love or respect) are avoided or “treated” superficially. And these are the “wounds” that last and affect every aspect of our lives.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears:  all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship;  being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.

To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least,  acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.

Are you up for it?




Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: December 06, 2017 07:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)

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)

When a Kick In the Teeth Will Help You!

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the
teeth may be the best thing in the world for you. - Walt Disney

Adversity.  This word has been simmering in my head lately for a number of reasons both personally and professionally.  What does it mean?  What does it feel like for me when I handle it?  What do others do when they are handling adversity?  Does it make a difference if you are handling it at work or at home?  Why do some handle adversity one way while others do it differently and in some cases completely the opposite?  

A recent example happened last weekend in our office.  One person was rushed to a hospital on Friday night.  At first, we were unaware of the specific details, but we were told of the purported severity.  While, thankfully, there was no terminal danger it was thought to be serious enough that they would be out of work for at least a few weeks.  

It was amazing to watch the whole company jump into action.  Plans were discussed on how to take over their work while they were gone.  A handful of the team discussed how they would take over the travel for him during his absence.  Others talked about how they would be able to help out his family at home.  In the matter of minutes, there was a plan in place instilling a feeling of calmness in the group for the better part of 24 hours after the initial news.  

Over the next 48 hours we waited and hoped all would be OK.  In this situation, while the person had dangerous symptoms, it turned out to be nothing more serious than a scare..  As I write this article, the person is back at work and doing just fine.  

The steps we took to handle adversity were to take in the initial scare, determine the actions required, and then be satisfied with the actions to attain a sense of calmness and peace.

This type of situation is not uncommon, nor is the way we handled it.  In fact, I am sure if you replaced the health aspect of the story with some other situation at work, you would come up with similar steps for your group.  I did some research on the word adversity and what I discovered fascinated and encouraged me.  Nowadays it means misfortune or difficulties.  However, the origin of the word comes from the Latin word “advertere” which means turn toward.  

We all have been shown various ways to handle adversity and have leaned toward our favored approach to handling it.  As its etymology suggests, we should embrace adversity as leaders and project managers in our community; expect it and leverage it to turn perceived trouble into team or family strength.  As the inspiring author of The Seven Habits of Successful People advises:  

Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition
 - such as lifting weights - we develop our character muscles by
overcoming challenges and adversity. -Stephen Covey

Posted by Graham Briggs on: November 30, 2015 11:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

Know Thyself, Learn, and Grow through Mistakes and Practices

This is my first blog post in this forum and I am very excited to be part of this community with my fellow classmates from Project Management Institute Leadership Institute Master Class (LIMC) 2015 class. 

I would like to share with everyone in PM community some of my perspectives, thoughts, and experiences in my ongoing leadership journey. 

I believe becoming a better leader begins with you and thus you need to Know Thyself.  What are you doing to develop your leadership skills?  There’s a famous quote from Vince Lombardi that says:

“Leaders aren’t born, they are made.  And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.  And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” - Vince Lombardi

You need to work on yourself to become a better leader.  Learn from past leaders and from their experiences.  What kind of leader do you want to be?  An admired leader, perhaps?  Well, it doesn’t happen overnight.


Know Thyself:

I believe that if you want to become a better leader, you need to, at some point, conduct an assessment of yourself on who you are, how you are viewed by others around you, and where and how you want to walk your leadership journey.  Whether this is done personally or through programs your work/community organization offers, you need to conduct a reality check on yourself to understand your baseline and where you are in leadership journey so that you can continue to lead with strengths while working on areas for improvements to become a better leader.

Have you spent time assessing yourself to find out what you are doing well and what areas you can improve on to become a more effective leader?


Leadership Philosophy:

With that said, I believe building your leadership skills and style with the Servant Leadership philosophy as the base foundation to your leadership style(s) will provide a more meaningful and rewarding experience not only to you as a leader but also to those you lead in your organization. 



I really like the quote from Harold Geneen that says “Leadership cannot really be taught.  It can only be learned.”  What I got out of this quote is that you have to practice it, experience it, and learn from it.  Simply hearing about it from someone or reading about it isn’t enough. 

If you want to know more about being a good leader and developing your leadership skills, there’s a lot of information on the internet as well as books, articles, and seminars for you to read and hear about and gain knowledge on them.  But just because you read and know about them does not make you a better leader.  You have to practice it, learn from your own experiences, fine tune what works best for you, embed it into the fabric of who you are as a person and become that better person/leader.  You can’t pretend to be a good leader.  You have to be genuine about what you say & what you do; otherwise, people will see right through you.


Make Mistakes and Learn from It:

There are many quotes and comments from famous people about making mistakes.  One of my favorite on making mistakes is by Albert Einstein and it says “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”  Fear of making mistakes should NOT prevent us from trying something that we want to do.  Making mistakes, actually, isn’t a bad thing because you learn a lot from them.

Everyone makes mistakes.  The difference between those who benefit from making a mistake and those who do not are:

  • Those who are able to learn from their mistakes and not make them again learn a valuable lesson.

  • Those who cannot see the positive side of “life lesson” will be either discouraged or make the same mistakes over and over again.

As a leader, when we make a mistake, we must first own it, have a positive view of it and learn from it.  This will help us become wiser and build our wisdom.  So we should not be discouraged by the mistakes we make.  Hopefully, you are not making mistakes all the time in every turn you take.  If so, you will need to reassess yourself and consider looking into “Know Thyself” and make necessary adjustments. 



Practice your leadership skills.  To improve on it, you must practice it.  One of the best places that you can hone your leadership skills and also serve the project management community, at the same time, is by joining your local PMI Chapter and serving as a volunteer.  You will have an opportunity not only to meet new people and network, you will also have exposure to opportunities that allow you to lead and practice your leadership skills, in addition to all the fun and rewarding experiences volunteering will bring to you.

The last thing I would like to mention is that a few weeks ago, I went to see a movie “The Martian” starring Matt Damon.  There were many funny and great quotes from the movie; however, the one that was most memorable to me was the message toward the end of the movie when Matt Damon talked about solving problems one after another and not giving up and if you solve enough problems, you get to go home and not die in Mars.

Do your homework to succeed and solve problems.  Don't be discouraged.  Don’t give up even if you fail.  Keep trying.  At least you are not on Mars so you won’t die. :)   Since you are on Earth, you will build wisdom from mistakes you make.  Experiences will empower you and make you a better leader/person.


On my next blog, I am going to talk about building trust and being trustworthy and why I think it is so very important in everything I do as I walk my leadership journey. 

Posted by Jonathan Lee on: November 02, 2015 03:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

"I'd rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate."

- George Burns



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