Is servant leadership relevant to project leaders today?

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Servant leadership is a term we use when a project manager or leader puts the needs of those they are leading before their own. Rather than being interested in power, money or prestige, they have a desire to serve their team and client and enable others to make a difference. You could say that servant leaders are givers who seek to empower people to contribute to a bigger vision. When things go well, servant leaders look out of the window and let others take credit. When things go wrong, they look in the mirror and take responsibility.

The servant leader is highly relevant in today’s workplace. With new generations entering the workforce, there is an increasing demand for project managers to empower their teams and to help people find purpose in their work. Millennials don’t just want to be told what to do. They want to be involved. A traditional command-and-control management style works well in a setting where the manager holds all the knowledge – but in our era of knowledge workers, and in an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, one leader simply cannot hold all the answers. The leader’s role now is not to know it all, but to help team members apply and expand their knowledge so that they are better able to innovate and deliver great outcomes.

Servant leaders are emotionally intelligent

Key characteristics of servant leaders are a high level of emotional intelligence, good listening skills and an ability to coach. Servant leaders acknowledge other people’s perspectives, give them the support they need to meet their goals and build a sense of community within the team.

The ability to listen and maintain stability can be symbolised by the feminine ‘yin’ element. Servant leaders use this element to build the team’s confidence and to develop skills that are lacking. They encourage collaboration and provide a safe environment for team members to work together and come up with their own solutions. This style is enabling and is concerned with making it possible for others to flourish and contribute.

But servant leadership is not only characterised by supportive yin. It’s also important that leaders can access their challenging ‘yang’ side. This symbolises the masculine element, which is demanding and factual. Servant leadership is not about being nice all the time. It’s about serving the client and developing a high-performing team to enable that.

Interestingly, a high-performing team isn’t necessarily the most comfortable place to be, because it’s constantly being challenged to improve and innovate. Yang leaders have a strong sense of direction and are results-driven. They set a high standard, ask difficult questions and challenge the team to deliver to the best of its ability.

It takes yin and yang

For you to develop into an effective servant leader, you will need to combine the elements of yin and yang so that you use equal amounts of warmth and strength. You can do that by involving people in the decisions that affect them and at the same time asking questions that empower and stimulate innovative thinking.

The trick is to challenge the team to reach a high standard and at the same time provide them with the support required to do so. When done well, the outcome is a higher level of engagement, more trust, stronger relationships and increased innovation.

As you venture further into the area of servant leadership, be aware of any desire to serve yourself and try not to use situations, colleagues and team members to gain greater power, money or recognition. In addition, be mindful that, if you work for an organisation where leaders are expected to make all the decisions, you may need to initially move quietly and let your results and stellar team performances pave the way.

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This article first appeared in Winter 2019 of Project journal, a free publication for APM MembersDownload the digital issue now (🔒).

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Susanne Madsen

Posted by Susanne Madsen on 13th Jan 2020

About the Author

Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership. Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM). Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting. Read more on:

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