18 May, 2020

How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team

I will declare my position right upfront. I believe Servant Leadership is the single most valuable approach to leadership for Project Managers.

This is not to say that Servant Leadership should be your only approach. It would be absurd to suggest that a chisel should be the only tool a carpenter uses.

But, as an over-arching principle for how to lead your project team, you can do no better than Servant Leadership. Here’s why…

Why Servant Leadership for Project Management

How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team

Your job, as project leader, is to deliver your project:

  • on schedule
  • to budget
  • within specification

But you cannot do that alone. You need a team to support you. So, as your team will do most of the work, we can restate this as…

Your team’s job is to deliver your project:

  • on schedule
  • to budget
  • within specification

So, what is your job?

Your job is to make it possible to for them to do that. To support, guide, and enable them. In short, to serve them.

So, my argument is that the role of a leader is to serve the people who follow you. And that’s why I have written this article about Servant Leadership… To show you how.

But, for a 60 second intro…

What I’ll Cover in This Article

In this article, I will look at:

If you prefer a video…

Why Servant Leadership Matters

At the core of Project Management are the skills of bringing a team together and leading them. Your goal is is to craft a high-performing team, that can deliver your project. They need to collaborate effectively and communicating well.

My Old Way of Leading

So, what do you do, to get the best from them? You inspire, support, consult, direct, and coach your team members. And you do so both individually, and as a group.

My old model of good leadership was to create a self-confident team, that could lead itself. It would be one that no longer needed me.

Why ‘Teach a Person to Fish’ is a Flawed Model

I call this approach the ‘teach a person to fish’ model of leadership. It took me a long time to spot the flaw in it.

But there is a flaw.

Since we are talking about fishing…
First of all, think about a fishing crew. 

What does the crew need, to be successful? It needs to know how to:

  • fish – that’s essential
  • maintain their boat
  • sell their fish

But does this make them self-sufficient?


Behind them is a whole community of suppliers, transport businesses, friends, and family. Not to mention someone to steer the boat. And they rely on them all.

So, there’s your answer…

Teaching a person to fish is only the start.

As a leader, your job is to make it easy for them to go out and fish. And to fish safely and efficiently. 

Your job is to make it easy for your team to fish well.

Let’s Change the Story

Work is a bit like doing exams. At the end of each year, we get graded on our performance. But there is a difference. In work, it should be possible for everyone to perform at A-grade level.

When you are leading a project, you can show your team members their exam paper. For every work package you allocate, there is an A-grade performance level. And if you set out what that is, your team members know how to hit the mark.

Your True Leadership Role

Your true leadership role is to set up every team member to get an A-grade on each of their work packages.

And, having set them up, you have another important task. To give them the resources and the support that make it possible for them to get that A-grade. You must ensure they get everything they need:

  • Knowledge
  • Tools
  • Equipment
  • Information
  • Materials

In fact, anything that the task requires. 

Everything else…

But if there are any distractions that might hinder them in ther quest to succeed… get it out of their way.

Organizations throw all sorts of rubbish at us. Doesn’t it sometimes feel hard to focus on the work you need to do? Your team experience this every day. Probably, that will continue until you do something about it.

Think of yourself as the team’s lightning conductor. When your organization zaps the team with a lightning bolt, absorb it yourself, so your team doesn’t have to.

There’s a name for this style of leadership

It’s Servant Leadership. I know it sounds like a contradiction in terms. But it is a profoundly important idea. 

What is Servant Leadership

A Servant Leader is a leader who sees their role as being the servant of the people who follow them. Their job is to:

  1. Provide their followers with what they need, while
  2. Removing obstacles from their way

I shall refer to these two aspects of the Servant Leader role as:

  1. Rations
    Providing materials, resources, assets that the team needs
  2. Raincoat
    Offering protection from the organizational weather, so the team can work at full capacity without distraction

Max De Pree

Max De Pree was CEO of Herman Miller, a US office furniture business. When he stepped down in 1987, he published his best-selling book, ‘Leadership is an Art’. De Pree said:

Thus, the leader is the “servant” of his followers in that he removes the obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs. In short, the true leader enables his or her followers to realize their full potential

Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art

A Simple Introduction to Servant Leadership

If you are a watcher, rather than a reader, this short video covers the basics of what is in this article.

There’s More: Stewardship

There is more to Servant Leadership than serving your people. Yes, the obvious part of your role as a Servant Leader is to serve the people you lead. But service goes further.

You must also serve your organization. This means serving

  • The project they lead.
  • Your client, your boss, or your project sponsor
  • The organization that employs you
  • And the communities to which your organization has a responsibility

You must take care of all of these, and leave them at least as healthy and vital as they were when you took your role.

A Servant Leader is a steward of their organization and its assets (including its people). This gives you a duty of care that should motivate all your choices.

The Origins of Servant Leadership

Leaders at all levels have been acting in Servant Leadership roles throughout history. And classical commentators in cultures from China to India, to Europe have articulated the ethical and practical benefits. I don’t want to do a thesis.

Robert Greenleaf - originator of Servant Leadership

But, in its modern formulation, we can trace the origin of the Servant Leadership idea to Robert Greenleaf.

Greenleaf was a corporate manager at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T as it now is). In 1958, he read Herman Hesse’s novella, Journey To The East. It had a huge impact on his thinking in the way he related it to his experience of creating change within AT&T.

Journey to the East

Journey To The East led Greenleaf to form his concept of Servant Leadership. But he only developed his ideas fully once he retired. He rejected the thinking of many corporate and political leaders, who want to exert control. Instead, he argued that leaders need to be servants first.

When he retired, Greenleaf founded The Center for Applied Ethics. It is now The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

And he wrote several books on Servant Leadership, the most influential of which was: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness(1977. Now in a 25th anniversary edition).

You can learn more about Greenleaf in my article on the Management Pocketbooks website. In particular, I look at Greenleaf’s interpretation of Journey to the East.

Servant Leadership in Context

Whenever I think about leading a team, my mind goes straight to Bruce Tuckman’s model of group formation.

If you are not familiar with the Tuckman model (and you really should make the time), we have a full article: Get Better Results from you Team with Tuckman.

I think it is helpful to place Servant Leadership in the context of the different approaches to leading a team, at each stage of its development.

Forming Stage: The Role of a New Leader

Teams begin when a new team comes together for the first time, with their new team leader.

Your role is to get your team working together as quickly and efficiently as possible. To do this, you must be very clear what each person’s tasks are, and how to take them on. At this stage, your team needs:

  • Clarity
  • Confidence, and
  • The feeling that they can help

As a servant leader at this early stage, you need to create a safe space for people to start to contribute. As they do so, they will also begin to assess one another and start to build working relationships.

Storming Stage: Dealing with Conflict and Challenge

Once people start to work together, they will discover each other’s personalities and also begin to understand the job at hand. Now, personalities will start to assert themselves.

The more dominant people will look for opportunities to take control. They may become bossy or prescriptive in how to do aspects of the team’s task. And they may even want to challenge your leadership. To serve the team and your sponsor, you must assert yourself and provide clarity.

However, the less confident people will find this uncomfortable. And you must also serve them. So, you need to observe the social dynamics and deal with inappropriate behaviors, to allow everyone to feel safe and comfortable.

The other way to serve the team is to keep them focused on their work. If you can create a sense of common purpose, the team will start to work together. And making progress will foster a sense of achievement that will help people feel good about themselves and their role in the team.

Norming Stage: Creating Processes and Practices

Once the social tensions start to abate, people will begin to focus on getting on with their jobs. Now, you’ll notice the team becomes more effective. And you will also see people becoming more confident in their individual roles.

You won’t serve people well, if you interfere too much. They don’t need you to give them instructions or constantly hover over them. A light touch to guide them and a compliment that recognizes their work will usually be enough.

So, what should a servant leader do at this stage?

Your job is to help the team build the practices, processes, and habits that will support them in doing their work ever more efficiently. We sometimes call these ‘norms of behavior’ – which gives this stage its name.

One important part of this is helping people to connect with colleagues who can offer help and advise them in their work. So, a big part of servant leadership at this stage is creating and strengthening the links between team members

Therefore, to optimize team performance, you need to be like a host at a party. Serve your guests, making introductions, and show them where the facilities are. Your role is to make everyone feel comfortable.

Performing Stage: Serving a Self-confident Team

The Performing Stage is where your team makes rapid progress and hardly seems to need you anymore! They have all the contacts they need and effective, efficient ways of working. It seems like there is little for you to do.

If you get bored, you may be tempted to try to lead. But truly, you don’t need to…

Just leave them to it

What you should see is individual acts of leadership from different team members. At different stages of their work, different people will step forward and take the lead. Then, they will step back when the task shifts. This is a real self-confidence in your team.

So, what is your role?

Now, it’s time for true servant leadership. This demands a light touch. I would characterize your two roles as:

  • Rations
  • Raincoat


Your first role is to make sure that your team gets the rations that are due to them. Fight for them to get the organizational recognition they deserve. And ensure they have the resources they need, a productive work environment, and all the assets and information that the job demands.

Essentially, your first task is to maintain the environment in which your team can flourish.

Be like a faithful servant. Run around after them, clean up the messes, and get them with whatever they need!


What of your second role as a servant leader?

That comes when it’s raining. Be a lightning conductor if they need it, shelter them with an umbrella, when they step under a torrent, and provide everyone with a waterproof raincoat to keep them dry.

What am I talking about? By ‘rain’, I mean the unwanted politics, distractions, and administration that organizations throw at us. It’s these things that keep us from being productive.

So, as a servant leader, it’s your job to take on the admin and the politics, so your team doesn’t have to. That way, you free them up to give all their attention to your project. 

Therefore, like a faithful servant, you’re working for your team. You do the menial jobs, so they don’t have to. They can get on and deliver the project.

How to Be a Servant Leader

I want to end this article on a highly practical note. I want to suggest 12 things you can do to embed Servant Leadership into the way you manage and lead your projects.

Perhaps you want to consider yourself a Servant Leader, or simply improve one or two aspects of your leadership style. Either way, I hope you will think about taking up some of these idea and incorporating them into your own leadership style.

This list is not complete. And, if you do all of them, you won’t necessarily become a servant leader. I think that is more a mind-set and an emotional choice than a To Do list.

But, this is a good guide where to start. If you approach it with a commitment to service, then you move in the right direction.

1. Integrity is Not Optional

Greenleaf’s original conception of Servant Leadership was a moral one. And, as I have said above, a large part of it revolves around the idea of stewardship. So, your leadership must be ethical, honest, and authentic.

2. Service Requires Humility

Approach everything you do with humility. Be prepared to be wrong, be ready to learn, and of curse… be willing to serve.

3. Listen First

Any good leader needs to be an excellent communicator. And the first skill of a great communicator is listening. This is especially the case for a Servant Leader. This is how you can understand the needs, priorities, and points of view of the people you serve.

4. Take the Time to Understand

I do not believe that a Project manager needs to be a technical expert in anything other than in managing projects. But you do need to have the intellectual authority to contribute to your team’s problem-solving and decision-making if called-upon. This means taking the time to fully absord and understand the issues that arise. A servant must understand their master. 

5. Look Ahead

Linked to the previous item is foresight. I don’t expect you to be clairoyant. But you do need to make the time to think ahead and anticiplate what’s coming around the corner in your project. And therefore, you should be able to meet the needs of your followers, quickly and efficiently.

6. Cultivate Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment, in the realm of leadership and management. But you cannot underestimate its value. It allows you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and detect your responses to the challenges that face you. This, in turn, will help you to make wiser judgements.

With self-awareness must come self-control. We’ll look at that, at number 12.

7. Trust Your Team

A servant must trust their master, and you must trust your team. Give them the responsibility and empower them to do the work. Your job is to serve them, rather than monitor them.

8. Build a Sense of Community

A Servant Leader will serve each person within your team, according to their needs. But your primary duty of service is to the team itself. So, be collaborative in the way you operate and think about the needs of the many. A key aspect of this part of your role is to build a sense of community and team spirit. Look for ways to help people feel a part of something important.

9. Craft and Maintain the Team Culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Originated by Peter Drucker
Made famous by Mark Fields, President at Ford

Create an environment where people do not only feel comfortable. They should feel positively flourishing. Absolute respect for everyone, from everyone is one essential component. So too is complete integrity.

10. Focus on Outcomes: not Inputs

I want to say: ‘be results-orientated’. But I would not wish to imply that ‘the ends justify the means’. That’s just a moral blank check.  Assess people on the outcomes they create and not on the choices they make in how they do this. But always filter this through the cultural tests of integrity and respect.  

11. Develop Your People

The best way a servant leader can commit to developing the people around you is in setting good challenges and letting people thrive. Be constantly alert for opportunities to help your team members grow their skills, confidence, and professionalism. When helping people, take a coaching approach; rather than one of telling.

12. Show Restraint in Using Authority

As a project leader, you have authority. But, as a Servant Leader, you must never leap to use it. As soon as you exercise your authority, you cease to have a servant mentality. So, rely on your ability to influence through your personality and character.

What is Your Experience of Servant Leadership?

I’d love to hear your experiences of and opinions about Servant Leadership. Please let us know in the comments below and I will respond to every contribution.

By the way…

Here are some more Leadership Models Project managers Need to Know about.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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