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Ways to Advocate Servant Leadership as a Project Manager

By: Hajime Estanislao, PMP, CSM

Are you feeling the limitations of traditional leadership within your project management role? In a world where agility, empathy, and collaboration are essential, the command-and-control tactics are now falling behind.

Imagine leading a team where every member feels valued, heard, and motivated. A team that not only meets its goals but exceeds them through cooperation and mutual respect. This is the power of servant leadership, a transformative philosophy that prioritizes serving others at the forefront of organizational leadership.

By adopting servant leadership, you will enhance the team dynamics, contribute to project success, and promote a more just and caring professional environment. With its emphasis on listening, empathy, healing, and community, servant leadership aligns seamlessly with Agile methodologies, making it an ideal approach for project management challenges.

Explore the world of servant leadership. Start by integrating its principles into your daily practices and watch your project management approach transform. This will lead to happier teams, more successful projects, and a significantly more fulfilling leadership experience.

"Orange figure holding binoculars overseeing a line of grey figures, symbolizing leadership and foresight."

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership is a visionary and transformative leadership philosophy in which the primary goal is to serve others. This approach diverges from traditional leadership models by emphasizing the leader’s role as a supporter and enabler rather than a figure of authority.

From Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay, “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership is characterized by a deep commitment to the growth, well-being, and empowerment of team members and stakeholders. It prioritizes listening, empathy, healing, and self-awareness, fostering community and stewardship. In practice, servant leadership manifests through a leader’s dedication to understanding and addressing the needs of their team, guiding them not through coercion but through consensus and persuasion, and always aiming to elevate the team’s collective performance by nurturing their individual and collective strengths.

This philosophy aligns seamlessly with Agile methodologies and project management, where flexibility, team autonomy, and customer-centric outcomes are valued. Adopting servant leadership within these contexts not only enhances team dynamics and project success but also contributes to the broader range and the promotion of ethical behavior and compassionate leadership practices.

Servant Leadership in Project Management

Integrating servant leadership principles can be transformational; this means leading and executing projects and aligning closely with the evolving needs of teams and stakeholders. This connection is rooted in the innate desire to serve first, which impacts project management through team empowerment, open communication, and a deep commitment to the project’s success.

Servant leadership enriches project management by shifting the focus from task completion to fostering a supportive and collaborative environment. In this setting, project managers are servant leaders who prioritize understanding and meeting the needs of their team members. Servant leadership in project management involves actively listening to concerns and feedback, empathizing with the challenges, and facilitating professional growth and well-being. Such an approach enhances individual and team performance and builds resiliency and adaptability that are capable of overcoming complex project challenges.

Servant leadership in project management encourages a culture of shared responsibility and decision-making. By valuing and leveraging this leadership style, diverse skills and perspectives within the team are used to their optimum, ensuring project goals exceed expectations and are met with creativity and innovation. This collaborative atmosphere fosters a sense of ownership and accountability among team members, leading to higher-quality outcomes and increased stakeholder satisfaction.

Further, servant leadership advocates for an environment where trust, respect, and mutual support form the foundations. It transforms the project journey into a collective endeavor where the leader and team are aligned in their pursuit of excellence. This alignment pushes projects toward success and also contributes to the personal and professional development of everyone involved, embodying the essence of a transformational leader and follower within project management.

"Project management team actively engaging in a task organization session with a Kanban board."

Servant Leadership as a Scrum Master

The Scrum framework, an example of Agile methodologies, thrives on principles that resonate deeply with the ethos of servant leadership. This makes this leadership style particularly relevant in the context of large multinational organizations. These entities face unique challenges due to their scale, diversity of resources, and complexity of operations, all of which demand a leadership approach that is both adaptive and people-focused.

It does so by fostering an environment with openness, respect, and commitment. In many organizations, the servant leader’s ability to conceptualize and maintain a clear vision may help keep teams aligned with the organization’s strategic plans and overarching goals. This strategic perspective includes understanding the regulatory, cultural, and market conditions across different regions and ensuring that the Scrum teams can adapt and respond to these variables effectively.

The cycle of empowerment and growth that servant leadership promotes is particularly beneficial in such organizations, where nurturing talent and fostering innovation across borders can lead a business to a significant competitive advantage.

Further, this, sometimes called a visionary leader, promotes the development of skills and capabilities that contribute to long-term success. This creates an environment that motivates teams and empowers employees, which also enhances team collaboration, increases innovation, and improves project outcomes across diverse and complex global businesses.

"Conceptual image of a hand drawing attributes of a servant leader around a bright light bulb on a chalkboard."

The 10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Listening

Active listening understands and addresses the needs and concerns of others. Listening is very relevant in many organizations with hybrid or virtual teams. Listening is an aspect that can provide clear direction for projects.

Empathy

The ability to empathize with others, acknowledging and valuing their unique perspectives and emotions without judgment. Various industries have made a point to include many benefits and essential steps in their core values, including empathy towards colleagues.

Healing

Healing facilitates emotional and psychological safety, promoting a healthy and supportive environment.

Awareness

Demonstrating a keen sense of awareness, including being self-aware and understanding the broader context within which the team operates in a dynamic world where change happens quickly.

Persuasion

Relying on persuasion rather than positional authority to influence and guide colleagues and stakeholders fosters a culture of trust and mutual respect.

Conceptualization

The ability to conceptualize and envision the future, guiding our strategic thinking, decision-making, and long-term planning beyond the day-to-day focus.

Foresight

Applying lessons from the past and the realities of the present to anticipate the consequences of decisions for the future; foresight enables wise and ethical decision-making and prudent action in alignment with the organization’s goals.

Stewardship

Stewardship focuses on taking responsibility for the well-being of the organization and managing resources wisely for the greater good.

Commitment to the Growth of People

A deep commitment to growth, development, and individual empowerment, recognizing their potential and nurturing their personal and professional advancement.

Building Community

Actively working to build a strong sense of community and belonging within the team and organization, enhancing collaboration, and fostering a supportive network of strategic leaders.

"Animated brainstorming session with a diverse team and a senior woman leader explaining concepts."

Reasons You Should Understand Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is an enhancement to your managerial toolkit; it’s a fundamental shift that aligns with the evolving dynamics of the modern workplace. Alongside this type of leadership, collaboration, agility, and employee well-being are the driving forces, and adopting the servant leadership model can dramatically transform the effectiveness of your leadership and team performance. This approach to visionary leadership, rooted in a deep care for the growth and development of team members, fosters a work environment where innovation, trust, and mutual respect flourish.

Fosters a Positive Work Environment

It creates a culture of respect, understanding, and support that boosts morale and job satisfaction. A shared vision, transparency, and a lookout to the future promote positivity.

Enhances Team Collaboration and Organizational Leadership

Focusing on listening and empathy, servant leaders encourage open communication and cooperative problem-solving. Multiple types of professionals and teams align with traditional approaches, as this was a common setup in organizations. As a good leader, advocacy to embrace change, continuously improve, align with the business goals, and synergize with employees with different skills sets the tone for collaboration.

"Smiling business team engaging in a group fist bump in a collaborative office setting."

Drives Higher Employee Engagement

Employees feel valued and understood, leading to increased engagement and commitment to the team’s goals.

Improves Adaptability and Strategic Thinking

The focus on empowerment and awareness allows teams to navigate change and tackle complex challenges.

Builds Stronger Relationships

Establishing deep connections based on trust and mutual respect leads to more cohesive and resilient teams. Relationships across the matrix environment are a pinnacle requirement in project management.

Encourages Personal and Professional Growth

A commitment to the growth of people ensures continuous learning and skills development of employees, enhancing the team’s capabilities to meet strategic objectives.

In the following section, I am simplifying the essence of servant leadership into five actionable steps, making it easier for you to integrate these practices into your daily leadership routine.

By embracing this journey, you are committing to fostering an environment of empowerment, collaboration, and growth for yourself and those you lead.

Let us explore these steps, designed to help you embody the principles of servant leadership.

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Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding and Becoming a Servant Leader

Servant leadership is a transformative endeavor that reshapes how you lead and interact with your team. Each step is a building block toward creating a supportive environment where every team member feels valued, heard, and encouraged to grow. As you commit to these daily leadership practices, you aim to inspire and uplift those around you to achieve their fullest potential.

Master Active Listening

Active listening is the cornerstone of effective communication. Commit to fully engaging with the speaker, absorbing not just their words but the emotions and intentions behind them. Reflect on what you have heard by summarizing and asking open-ended questions to deepen understanding. Active listening demonstrates to your team that their thoughts, new ideas, and feelings are valued and considered.

Embrace Empathy

Empathy goes beyond mere understanding; it’s about experiencing others’ perspectives and emotions. Be present in every interaction, acknowledging and validating your team members’ experiences. By embracing empathy, you address the individual needs and concerns of the team, fostering a supportive and inclusive culture.

Champion Personal and Professional Development

Servant leaders invest in the growth and leadership development of their people. Identify opportunities that align with each team member’s growth objectives through mentorship, training, or challenging projects. Celebrating their milestones and achievements reinforces your commitment to their continuous leadership development.

Practice Persuasive Influence

Shift from command to persuasion. Influence decisions and directions through dialogue, consensus, and mutual respect rather than authority. This fosters a culture of trust and respect, where your team feels encouraged to share their ideas and solutions.

Foster a Community Spirit

Build a strong sense of community within your team and organization. Encourage collaboration, support, and a sense of belonging. Creating a community spirit enhances team cohesion and amplifies collective achievement and employee satisfaction afterward.

"Businessman standing on top of a complex road junction holding a straight direction arrow sign under stormy skies."

Key Considerations for Successfully Becoming a Servant Leader

Adopting servant leadership within your team or organization goes beyond just implementing the five steps outlined above; it requires a foundational shift in mindset and culture. One key consideration is fostering a genuine culture of trust and transparency. Servant leaders thrive in environments where leaders and team members can openly share ideas, challenges, and feedback without fear of judgment or retribution.

This openness promotes innovation and problem-solving, strengthens the bonds between team members, and makes the team more resilient when challenged.

Another aspect for leaders to consider is the balance between serving and leading. While servant leadership emphasizes putting the needs of others first, it also requires the ability to guide, make critical decisions, and enforce accountability. The effectiveness of a servant leader lies in their ability to inspire and empower their team while maintaining the direction and focus needed to achieve project goals and organizational objectives.

Patience and persistence are vital in this fundamental role. The transformation into a servant leader and its practices in your team’s operations is a gradual process that involves trial, error, and continuous learning.

Change may not happen overnight, and resistance is often part of the journey. Committing to personal growth, actively seeking feedback, and being adaptable to adjust your approach as you learn what works best for your team are essential for the long-term success of adopting servant leadership.

"Leadership books stacked with focus on titles about alternative leadership styles and strategies."

Choose your Alternative Leadership Style – A Laundry List of Approaches

Leadership styles refer to the various approaches and methods that leaders use to motivate employees and their teams, guide projects, and achieve organizational goals. Each style has its unique characteristics and can be effective in different contexts, depending on the nature of the work, the team’s composition, and the organizational culture. Here are some of the most recognized leadership styles:

  • Autocratic Style – This style is characterized by individual control over all strategic decisions and little input from the members. Autocratic leaders make choices based on their ideas and judgments, often without consulting their team.
  • Democratic Leadership – Also known as participative leadership, this style involves team members in decision-making processes. Leaders and team members collaborate to make plans and determine the project’s direction, promoting a sense of ownership and accountability.
  • Laissez-faire Leadership – Laissez-faire leaders give their team members complete freedom to make decisions and complete tasks as they see fit. This style requires high levels of trust in the team’s abilities and is effective when team members are highly skilled and self-motivated.
  • Transformational Leadership – Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their teams to achieve exceptional outcomes by setting clear goals, providing support and encouragement, and fostering a culture of innovation and creativity.
  • Transactional Leadership – This style is based on a system of rewards and punishments to manage team members. Transactional leaders focus on routine tasks and organizational processes, using clear structures and expectations to achieve results.
  • Situational Leadership – Situational leaders adjust their approach based on the team’s needs, the specifics of the task at hand, market changes, and the environment in which they are operating. They are flexible and can employ various leadership styles as the situation demands.
  • Charismatic Leadership – Charismatic leaders inspire and motivate their teams through their energy, commitment, and persuasive abilities. They often create an enthusiastic work environment but may need to ensure that the team does not become overly dependent on them.
  • Coaching Leadership – Coaching leaders focus on developing team members’ old and new skills and capabilities, providing feedback and guidance to help them grow professionally. This style is supportive and developmental, aiming for long-term improvement and success.

Each leadership traditional management style has its strengths and limitations, and the most effective and highly sought-after leaders are those who can adapt their approach to suit the specific needs of their team and the challenges they face.

"Senior male leader in a white shirt and tie smiling confidently with a diverse team in the background."

My Experience as a Servant Leader

Embarking on the path to servant leadership is a journey that reshaped my understanding of what it means to lead. This article has navigated through the transformative principles of servant leadership, illustrating how its practices can enhance project management, motivate teams, enrich the Scrum framework in multinational organizations with transformational leaders, and foster a more equitable and compassionate workplace. We’ve explored the core characteristics of a servant leader and provided a practical guide for integrating these principles into your leadership style.

My experience with servant leadership, drawn from years of leading diverse teams in various projects, has taught me the immeasurable value of putting others first. This journey has improved my effectiveness as a leader and contributed to creating work environments where innovation, trust, and mutual respect flourish. Adopting servant leadership principles has led to more engaged, satisfied, and high-performing teams, underscoring the impact of this transformational leadership approach.

My journey is grounded in real-world experience, marked by successes, challenges, and continuous learning. I’ve witnessed firsthand the positive changes servant leadership can bring to individuals, teams, and organizations. This article is not just stories or theories; it’s a testament to the power of servant leadership to create lasting improvements in how we lead and contribute to the success of our teams and the broader community.

As you continue your journey in servant leadership, remember that the true measure of your success will be the growth and well-being of those you choose to serve.

References:

Asana. (2024, February). Servant leadership: How to lead by serving your team. Retrieved from https://asana.com/resources/servant-leadership

Purdue Global. (2020, April). What is a servant leader? Retrieved from https://www.purdueglobal.edu/blog/business/what-is-servant-leadership/