Leading High-Risk Projects

Servant Leadership Lessons from the 1953 Mount Everest Expedition



Outcome Insights

Complexity and risks are a growing challenge for project managers globally. The failure rate of complex projects is high. This paper explains what servant leadership is, exploring its origins and overviewing Van Dierendonck's six characteristics of the servant leadership model. Colonel John Hunt, the leader of the successful 1953 Mount Everest expedition, is presented as an example of what servant leadership looks like in a high-risk project context. Hunt's behaviours and thinking styles are examined and lessons for high-risk projects, such as ICT-enabled business change projects, are drawn.

Keywords: servant leadership, risk, complexity, Mount Everest, IT, ICT


PMI's 2013 Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity (PMI, 2013) found that as organisations increase their project management maturity, their complex projects become more successful, but so do their less complex projects—and at the same rate. Maturity helps, but it is not a solution that addresses complexity directly. And the greater the complexity, the less likely that more processes and technology, no matter how intelligently applied, will help.

PMI's Pulse report concluded from its research that two of the most defining characteristics of complexity in projects are multiple stakeholders and ambiguity. Others included the presence of significant political/authority influences, dynamic governance, the presence of external influences, and the use of new technology.

These are not things that process maturity can solve. Managing complexity requires leaders who can successfully manage what it is that makes projects complex; leaders who can manage difficult stakeholders, ambiguous scope and technology, powerful political influences, and changing governance. Leaders of complexity need to be able to influence at multiple levels, be insightful, possess strong judgement, and be able to foster high-levels of engagement in their teams.

One leadership style above all others has the ability to do these things.


Servant leadership is a style of leadership that emphasizes the needs of the leader's “followers.” These might be the members of the leader's team, or of the broader organisation if the leader is a CEO. Servant leadership is beneficial to organisations because it engages and develops employees, building trust, communication, and commitment. As the followers’ trust in the leader increases, team engagement and commitment to the success of the mission also increases. The greater the risks of an initiative, the greater the value servant leadership can provide.

In PMI's March 2015 Pulse of the Profession® report, Capturing the Value of Project Management Through Knowledge Transfer,” PMI found that organisations which are most effective at knowledge transfer improve project outcomes by nearly 35% over those that don't. PMI wrote that organisations which are effective at knowledge transfer focus not just on culture, but on leadership and “most importantly on people because knowledge lives in and is applied by them.” The PMI report noted that a lack of trust within the organisation, different business cultures, and intolerance of mistakes are key factors which inhibit effective knowledge transfer and are likely to erode knowledge as it moves through the organisation.

These are behaviours which servant leadership directly addresses. The PMI findings suggest servant leadership can be expected to increase the significant benefits that knowledge transfer provides.


Many leaders fail to appreciate the high cost to a project of low engagement by its team members, particularly when that cost is in increased risk.

Metcalfe's Law states that the value of a communication network is proportional to the square of the number of users connected to it. The more people on the network, the more powerful the network. The value of a team works the same way. The power of what the team can achieve climbs rapidly for each member of the team who is effectively engaged, and it drops proportionally (exponentially) for those who aren't. Exhibit 1 shows this square-law relationship at work in teams.


Exhibit 1: The value of a fully engaged team.

The value of engagement in a team is not new, but it is something that we need to reflect upon more in project management. Daniel Goleman (the best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence) estimated in his 2002 book, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership Into the Science of Results, that how people feel about working for a company (Goleman calls these feelings “climate”) can account for 20 to 30% of business performance, and that 50 to 70% of climate can be traced to the actions of the leader.

The leader's ability to influence the performance of his or her team and reduce the risks of project failure is significant.


Servant leadership was coined as a leadership theory by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. Greenleaf described servant leadership as a style of leadership where leaders have a genuine interest in serving their followers. Servant leadership has been researched to varying degrees since then, attracting particular interest in the last ten years. Prominent organisational researchers have noted its positive effects on profits and employee satisfaction, and over 20% of Fortune magazine top-100 companies are reported to have sought guidance from the centre that Greenleaf established to promote servant leadership awareness and understanding.

The theory, and practice, of servant leadership is that because it has as its focus the interests of the “followers” (those who work for the leader) it creates strong relationships within the organisation or project, leading to increased performance.

In 2013, Denise Parris and Jon Peachey published a structured review of 39 studies on servant leadership (starting with a wider group of 255) which had been published in peer-reviewed journals between 2004 and 2011. Parris and Peachey's goal was to assess and synthesize, in a disciplined way not previously undertaken on this scale, the mechanisms, outcomes, and impacts of servant leadership.

Parris and Peachey's conclusions included that servant leadership has the potential to provide the ethical grounding and leadership framework needed to help address the unique challenges of the 21st century, including technological advancements, the internet, increased communications, and economic globalisation.

A concern from some about servant leadership is that, because it is focused on a style which has a goal of “serving its followers,” this might result in a loss of focus on the needs of the organisation. Repeated studies tell us that the opposite is true. One of the reasons that servant leadership is being increasingly studied is because of the value that it can provide the organisations which use it.

On the impact that servant leadership has on team effectiveness, Parris and Peachey found:

“…a servant-led organisation enhances leader trust and organisational trust, organisational citizenship behaviour, procedural justice, team and leader effectiveness, and collaboration between team members.”

A review and synthesis of servant leadership undertaken by Dirk van Dierendonck in 2011 published similar findings. He wrote that servant leadership can be expected to influence followers on an individual level through self-actualization, positive job attitudes and increased performance, and on a team level through increased team effectiveness.

Combining the insights from a number of influential servant leadership models created by a variety of research groups in recent years, van Dierendonck proposed a conceptual model of servant leadership which defined six key characteristics:

1. Empowering and developing people

Fostering a proactive, self-confident attitude among followers gives them a sense of personal power. Believing in the intrinsic value of each team member is key.

2. Humility

The extent to which a leader puts the interests of others first and keeps one's own accomplishments in proper perspective. Daring to admit one can learn from others and actively seeking the contributions of others. Retreating to the background when a task has been successfully completed.

3. Authenticity

Being true to oneself privately and publicly. Being honest. Doing what is promised. Professional roles remain secondary to who the individual is as a person.

4. Interpersonal acceptance

Being able to understand and experience the feelings of others. Letting go of perceived wrong-doings. Creating an atmosphere of trust where people are allowed to make mistakes and can know that they will not be rejected as a result.

5. Providing Direction

Making sure that people know what is expected of them (which is beneficial to them and the organisation) and providing them with the right degree of accountability. Direction can include creating new ways to solve old problems.

6. Stewardship

The willingness to take responsibility for the larger organisation, and to take a service focus rather than a control and self-interest focus. Leaders should also act not only as caretakers, but as role models for others.

John Hunt, Everest 1953

Someone from a military background who managed high levels of complexity and risk in a civilian environment, supported by a strong servant leadership style, was Colonel John Hunt, the leader of the 1953 expedition which conquered the world's highest mountain—Everest.

The 1953 expedition was complex. It served diverse stakeholders (the British public), had cross-cultural challenges (porters, Sherpas, climbers, international relations), needed 13 tons of equipment carried by over 350 porters, and was dependent upon new technology (including new closed-system oxygen sets).

Hunt, recruited from the Army to lead the expedition, exhibited a number of strong servant leadership behaviours. Viewed through the lens of van Dierendonck's six key servant leadership characteristics, a powerful servant leadership picture can be seen.

1. Hunt empowered others

Hunt was a strong believer in the intrinsic value of every member of his team. In his 1953 book on the expedition, Hunt wrote:

“It had seemed to me that it was unnecessary to set up a hierarchy of command and that there was always a danger of over-organising. In any case, we always looked upon the leader's job as merely one among the many responsibilities which we shared out between us.”

2. Hunt was humble

Hunt was knighted for his role as leader of the expedition that conquered Everest, but he never lost sight of the positioning of the expedition's success as the success of a team, not of a leader. In fact, he went further in his public talks on this and couched the success of the 1953 expedition in the context of it being just one in a series of expeditions from different countries, each of which had built on the achievements of those that had gone earlier. He used the analogy of a relay race to describe this process in his book:

“…a relay race, in which each member of a team of runners hands the baton to the next at the end of his allotted span, until the race is finally run.”

3. Hunt was authentic

Throughout the expedition, Hunt was open about his decision-making processes and the importance of achieving the summit. No person's personal ambitions, neither his nor any of the climbers, should be allowed to take precedence over the team's collective goal.

4. Hunt was interpersonally accepting

During the expedition, the climbers suffered multiple set-backs, but Hunt always assumed his men were doing their best. The first pair of the expedition's climbers to attempt the summit, Evans and Bourdillon, failed, in part because of problems with their new, closed-circuit oxygen sets. This was a huge disappointment for the two men, and a major risk for the expedition at the time—only one realistic summit opportunity (Hillary and Tenzing's) remained.

It would have been easy for Hunt to show disappointment at the failure of the first attempt, but that was not Hunt's style. He had nothing but praise for Evans’ and Bourdillon's efforts. He empathized strongly with them, writing:

“It was natural that disappointment should have been among their feelings, to get so near the ultimate goal—the fulfilment of a life's ambition—and then be denied it.”

And of the contribution that their summit attempt had made to the expedition's later success:

“They had (also) given us all, by their example, incalculable confidence in final victory.”

5. Hunt provided direction

The 1953 expedition's goal was the conquering of Everest. Hunt's focus was constantly on the goal: the amount of planning he put into it, the way he constantly tested his ideas with the other climbers, and the way he directed the different stages of the expedition; all of these ensured clarity of the expedition's goal and the way they were going to achieve it, throughout the five months they were away.

Hunt set these directions and made his choices consultatively, and as a consequence, enjoyed the full support of his team throughout the expedition.

6. Hunt was a steward

Perhaps the best evidence of Hunt as a “steward”—having as his focus the success of the mission on behalf of the greater organisation (the Joint Himalayan Committee back in London) and on behalf of his men—was what his men said of him when success was achieved.

Hillary (the first climber to actually reach the summit) wrote of Hunt, indicating the expedition's spirit of cooperation and love they had for him:

“To see the unashamed joy spread over the tired, strained face of our gallant and determined leader was to me reward enough in itself.”

And later, on how Hillary felt as he greeted other expedition climbers further down the mountain:

“I felt more than ever before that very strong feeling of friendship and co-operation that had been the decisive factor throughout the expedition.”


Complexity is a growing challenge for project managers globally and the failure rate of complex projects is high. Complexity, by its very nature, is not solved by increasing the maturity of organisational project management practices. Servant leadership, with its ability to increase the engagement of teams and to increase collaborative judgement, is ideally suited for complex environments. Hunt of Everest provides us a powerful examples of what servant leadership looks like in action within a complex program environment.



Grant Avery is the founder and director of Outcome Insights (O-I), a consulting practice specialising in the review of high-risk projects and PMO operating practices. Mr. Grant has reviewed and authored best management PPM and maturity improvement practices for the British government, written and presented on servant leadership, and has led search and rescue teams in Antarctica.


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© 2016, Grant Avery
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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