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
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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:

  1. Our human wiring triggers our constant need to win. We have to prove that we are better than the other person, we have to be the alpha dog (as individuals, as teams, as countries etc.). And this can be proven easily just by taking a quick look around us - in our history, in our schools, in our companies. But, in order to win, we need...a strong leader. Actually, we need her or him to be stronger (more powerful) than the other leaders. And this seems impossible when she or he exhibits servant characteristics like humility, kindness, patience, forgiveness etc. Where is the power in these?

  2. We tend to trust our vision more than any other feeling.Therefore, it’s not enough to know that there is somebody there who has our back. We need to see him or her. That leader placed in front makes us feel protected. The group (by itself) might not be trustworthy. However, having the leader take control and direct/impose the way forward makes us feel safe (mainly, because we can see him or her there, in front, exuding power). How can we “feel safe” when we hear Servant Leadership principles like trusting the group, bearing others’ interests in mind, using the “force” of the group and making sure that we all reach our destination, while our understated leader exercises authority (not power) somewhere from behind the group and not in front?

        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.


We can be both “servants” and “leaders” - we need only to feel we have the freedom and encouragement to be a leader - a Servant Leader - to recognize that spark in ourselves.

Posted by Catalin Dogaru on: March 22, 2017 04:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)
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