By George Pitagorsky
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Leadership is not about telling people what do. It is guiding people in pursuit of a goal. Servant leadership is leadership that recognizes that the leader is there to serve both the people who get things done and those who benefit from the results.

Not all project managers (PMs) are leaders and all leaders are not necessarily worthy of being followed. A project manager who is an effective leader makes the probability of project success high. Servant leaders take that to another level.

Servant leadership is not new. The concept goes back over fifty years and has been adopted by organizations such as Marriot, Whole Foods and Southwest Airlines, among others. It centers on the question of "What can I as a leader do to improve the life of an employee?"

The Motivation to Lead

Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of servant leadership, said "Good leaders must first become good servants."

Some aspire to leadership for the sake of their own power, security or ego - others are driven by the desire to be of service. Many, if not most, leaders have both of these motivations to one degree or another. The servant leader balances these and values service over ego.

Sometimes leaders fool themselves and their followers into thinking they seek to serve while they are all about serving themselves. Those who are driven by the motivation to serve are likely to be the most effective leaders. They will consider the needs of their followers, customers and business partners. They will be trusted. They will be better able to put aside self-interest for the good of the group and its objectives.

Those driven by power and ego, are more likely to put their needs above the needs of the group. They are more likely to use authority and fear and to face resistance – both active and passive. They will rely on their authority or rhetoric to promote compliance with their ideas. They are less likely to seek consensus and compromise. They are more likely to eliminate, ridicule or ignore opposing ideas and to throw performers and functional groups under the bus by blaming them for delays and errors.

What is a leader?

A leader is someone who facilitates others to achieve a goal or reach a destination. A leader motivates, inspires and guides. Traditionally, the leader has been seen as the one who sets goals, sets up the environment for achieving them and sets others to work to achieve the goals. The leader has been associated with command and control authority.

Increasingly, the leadership role is eliciting and clarifying - as opposed to authoring - goals, directing, articulating strategy and guiding people to the successful execution of the strategy. The leader is a communicator, facilitator and guide. The leader promotes consensus on core values and sets things in motion so the performers and other stakeholders can do the work to accomplish the goals. It is said, the leader who makes it seem as if there was no leader is the best kind of leader when compared to one's who lead through fear or personal charisma and rhetoric.

"A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” Lao Tzu

Honoring the People

Honoring the people is a key element in Lao Tzu’s view. To honor the people means to respect their capabilities and needs. In the project manager context, a servant leader respects capabilities by assigning work in accordance with the ability of the performer and provides the opportunities and support needed to perform and grow. The servant leader respects the needs of stakeholders by listening, communicating and engaging them. He or she uses their project management skills, tools and techniques to initiate, plan, execute, control and close the project - doing it with minimal overhead burden to the performers. The servant leader project manager gets out of the way and lets the team do it themselves.

Servant First

Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership. According to Greenleaf, "the servant-leader is servant first..." He or she has the natural urge to serve. The aspiration to lead arises out of the urge to serve. The servant leader recognizes that he or she can be of maximum benefit by leading. The servant leader seeks to make sure those served grow as persons, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants. Greenleaf's servant asks, "And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

The project manager who cultivates this sense of service and allows it to unfold in his or her projects is likely to experience a highly motivated team. A highly motivated team, focused on meeting objectives will be productive and successful without wasting time and effort on unhealthy conflict.

Meeting Objectives

The PM is responsible for meeting project objectives, satisfying sponsor and client expectations. The servant leader PM makes sure that those expectations are rational, protecting the team from unhealthy stress caused by trying to achieve the impossible. The project manager who seeks to serve adds meeting the objectives of the project performers to his responsibilities.

Servant leadership is expressed in the care taken to create a plan that can be executed without unhealthy stress on performers while satisfying business objectives. The effective PM will have the team develop the plan collaboratively, engaging them in a dialog that brings out the basic principles of good planning by requiring the estimators to articulate their assumptions and assess the impact of alternatives and risks.

Going Forward

Many project managers come to their position accidentally. They are programmers, analysts, engineers, scientists, attorneys and administrators. Others consciously decide to become project managers.

Either way, they are appointed to the PM position because there is a need and they are perceived as having the ability to fulfill it. Project managers are responsible for delivering results and respecting and protecting the rights and needs of all the stakeholders.

Their challenge is to learn the skills they will need to survive and succeed. Do they have to take on the attitude that they are there to serve? Not really, though it seems great good sense to take the effort to do so.

Questions or comments? Feel free to share them below!

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Online 9/19/2016
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