Project Management Institute

Masters of servitude

Osnat Niv-Assa, PMsphere, Tel Aviv, Israel

Osnat Niv-Assa, PMsphere, Tel Aviv, Israel

Giving up control doesn't mean losing control.

by Sandra A. Swanson // photo by Gil Lavi

It seems wrong.

By their very nature, leaders, are, well, supposed to lead the way. But sometimes embracing the qualities of a good follower can make a more effective leader.

So-called “servant leaders” focus on the needs of their teams rather than adhering to a top-down hierarchy centered on commands barked from the upper echelons. For project managers, the leadership style can help secure buy-in from team members by playing to their particular talents.

“Project managers are ideal examples of servant leaders,” says Don Led-better, director of management and organizational effectiveness at L-3 Communications, a defense contractor headquartered in New York, New York, USA. “The role they play is to work to meet the customer's and employer's objectives. Leaders must work to make the team successful, which means putting aside the leader's ego and issues to focus on the team's success. In this context, a leader must be selfless.”

That philosophy can take some getting used to, though.


The concept of servant leadership isn't new. It actually originates in such philosophies as the Tao Te Ching, written around the 6th century BCE. But it caught on as a business buzzword in the 1970s, when former AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf wrote The Servant as Leader. Although it's now a standard tenet of leadership training, many people and organizations still struggle with implementation of servant leadership, mainly because it upends traditional thinking.

Much of what we assume about leadership is rooted in a hierarchical view of organizations, says Dipanker Das, PMP, senior project manager in the New Delhi, India office of CGN, a global consulting firm.

“Our classic image of the effective leader is one who is strong,” he says. In other words, someone who has the answers, someone who may seek input but who ultimately makes the decision. “The leader is expected to know best,” Mr. Das explains.

This creates the prevalent top-down view of organizations. But flipping the organizational chart and working from the bottom up “suggests a fundamentally different leadership role,” he says.

For project managers, it means “always keeping the interests of others first, understanding their needs and recognizing the necessity of developing the people on the team.”


Servant leaders foster the growth of the members of the organization so that each may achieve their full potential.

—Dipanker Das, PMP, CGN, New Delhi, India


Project managers struggling with looming schedule and budget constraints might feel it's better to just take charge and give orders to team members.

But that can actually be counterproductive.

“One of the ways to achieve engagement is to motivate members to take a leadership role by delegating authority to them,” says Osnat Niv-Assa, PMsphere, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Here's some advice for helping team members transform into true leaders from Monica Semeniuk, PMP, an independent project manager in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada:

Demonstrate the behavior you would like others to emulate. “There is nothing as powerful as seeing a living example of leadership, and how others respond to it, to inspire others to take similar actions,” she says.

Provide training. “Give team members the opportunity to learn the concepts behind leadership and to experiment with new behaviors in a safe setting,” Ms. Semeniuk says.

Show support. “Listen to the team members' thoughts and concerns,” she says. “Help them to see themselves as leaders. Provide encouragement and feedback when they show leadership or when you anticipate potential opportunities.”

Reinforce desirable behavior. “Rewards need to be sensitive both to the organizational and environmental culture, as well as to the individual,” Ms. Semeniuk says. “A quiet word of congratulations may be more meaningful to some people than parties at an expensive hotel.”

By taking on the servant leader role, project managers help ensure each individual brings his or her own experience and expertise.

“Project management typically takes place in a cross-functional and often a matrixed environment with diverse internal and external stakeholders,” Mr. Das says. “The successful project manager will be one who works to bring this diverse group together toward a common goal, with a shared vision and with a focus on the whole.”

Servant leadership can be especially effective given that project managers aren't always granted official authority over team members.

“A project manager has to motivate people and devote them to the project, in particular when they are not under his or her direct responsibility,” says Osnat Niv-Assa, CEO of Tel Aviv, Israel-based PMsphere, an IT management company.

A dash of servitude can be just what project managers need to win over new team members. “Qualities that are required for motivating people can be found in servant leaders”—empathy and persuasion, for example.


There's one major complicating factor, however: For people who aren't familiar with servant leadership, the term itself can be misleading.

“The word servant tends to imply that the person simply follows orders and fulfills the requests of the ‘master,’” says Monica Semeniuk, PMP, an independent project management consultant in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Listening to people sometimes triggers project modifications. Try to limit the number of project modifications, and avoid changing the scope according to a single person's request.

—Osnat Niv-Assa



“This is a far cry from the role of the project manager. We are expected to utilize our expertise and experience to provide the best solution that meets the strategic objective of the project,” she says. “This may include offering alternative solutions, recommending termination of a project or even diplomatically questioning the selection of a project from the very beginning. None of these responsibilities fit within the traditional concept of being a servant.”

Some project managers may also be wary of the passivity implied with the term.

“Servant leaders are sometimes misconceived as people without leadership skills because they don't use power to manage their people,” Ms. Niv-Assa says.

Servant leaders tend to focus on organizational rather than personal success—with the idea that if the company succeeds, so will they.

“They are not motivated by power, nor do they have an ego need for authority,” Mr. Das says. “They tend to be selfless, altruistic, humble and motivated by some greater purpose or greater good. Servant leaders foster the growth of the members of the organization so that each may achieve their full potential. While formal authority may get superficial compliance, high levels of engagement and discretionary effort come when people make a choice to offer it.”


Fundamental to this leadership style is asking, “How can I help?” Equally important, though, is how a leader behaves when team members ask for assistance.

It's not merely the act of listening that distinguishes servant leaders. They “listen not to seek input so that they can make a decision, but for what the organization needs from them to enable others to make effective decisions,” Mr. Das says.

You can't please everyone, though, warns Ms. Niv-Assa. “Listening to people sometimes triggers project modifications,” she says. “Try to limit the number of project modifications, and avoid changing the scope according to a single person's request.”

In that regard, servant leaders must walk a fine line. Supporting the needs of followers does not mean attending to their every whim.

“Advocates of servant leadership who suggest that the leader should focus on meeting the needs of the team members are forgetting that our first priority must be to meet the needs of the project's sponsor,” Ms. Semeniuk says. “Is this a license to ignore the needs of the team? Absolutely not! It is the job of the project manager to find balance and alignment of those varied needs from the multiple stakeholders.”

It seems servant leaders have many “masters”—and it's up to them to find the balance. PM

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