The Role of Servant Leadership in Project Management

The Role of Servant Leadership in Project Management

If you’ve read or listened to anything about leadership in the last few years… you’ve heard the phrase Servant Leadership. This concept works in any situation where there is a leadership dynamic. How can this leadership theory be effective in Project Management? Let’s examine its origin and how it can be utilized effectively.

What is Servant Leadership?

As the name implies, Servant Leadership is about leading a team through serving the team members. The term was originally coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf and the philosophy has been expounded on over the years to include other qualities and styles.

Principles to servant leadership including:

  • Listening: To put the needs of others first, listening is critical. It also helps employees feel included and valued.
  • Empathy: Understanding your team members as more than just a list of skill sets can be tricky. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and not everyone can be managed in the same way.
  • Healing: Ever have a bad manager or work experience? Probably. We all are the sum of our past experiences and servant leadership can act to repair some of the damage done by past disastrous work environments.
  • Awareness: To be the most effective servant leader, a leader must have an understanding of their own strengths and challenges.
  • Persuasion: This concept may seem in contrast to being a servant leader. It implies conning people into doing something they don’t want to do. This isn’t manipulation; this is generating buy-in and energy around tasks to be done or new ideas. It helps everyone feel included.
  • Conceptualization: Servant leaders need to be able to see the big picture. To communicate a vision to the team that keeps them motivated and engaged.
  • Foresight: A Servant Leader needs to be able to see down the road. They need to see the potential roadblocks and hazards that might hinder the project’s success.
  • Stewardship: Creating a space where everyone on the team feels nurtured, included and a spirit of cooperation exists.
  • Commitment to the Growth of People: While the bottom line and company goals are always important, a servant leader must also emphasize the development of their people beyond the requirements of the task at hand.
  • Building Community: Building a community within an organization is a goal of the servant leader. People who feel more connected will be more respectful of other’s contributions and opinions and conversely feel less competitive.

Using Servant Leadership in Project Management

To fully utilize the qualities of a servant leader, its best to start with the “why”. Do not start with what is needed to be done; start with why it’s being done.

Once that is established, the next key is to create an environment where everyone can succeed. What does that look like? It means looking for ways to remove barriers to success, improve processes to make the core job easier and putting the right people in the right jobs.

If you work in an Agile environment this becomes even easier because the value of the process is just as important as the results of the project itself. Even if you’re not, you’ll see benefits from Agile methods of reflection and feedback as an ongoing part of the process and a focus of delivering value to the customer. And without knowing it, you are operating in both an Agile and Servant Leader way.

There are many words that can be used to describe a Servant Leader Project Manager other than “Manager” which may help better understand their role:

  • Coach
  • Facilitator
  • Educator
  • Cheerleader
  • Negotiator

Words that do not connect with the role of Servant Leader:

  • Task Master
  • Dictator
  • Authoritarian
  • Punisher

What great people do you think when you hear Servant Leader? Two clear examples from history were Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lincoln worked to make all sides better during the bitter conflict of the Civil war and was a great negotiator. Dr. King was passionate about nonviolence and working together to achieve common goals.

These are the kind of role models that evoke the best of Servant Leaders. This practice will create effective, valued and highly functional project teams who will confidently offer up ideas and energetically work for the good of the project. Sounds like an ideal environment, doesn’t it?