Neuroscience and the servant leader

reducing the risks of complex projects

Grant Avery, MBA, PMP

Founder and Director, Outcome Insights

Complexity is a growing challenge for project managers globally, and the failure rate of complex projects is high. This paper explains servant leadership, discusses the value of servant leadership to complex project management, and presents neuroscientific insights into leadership practices helpful for managing complex projects. Scott of the Antarctic and Hunt of Everest are presented as examples of what servant leadership looks like within a complex project environment. Recent neuroscientific research on how social pain is experienced by the brain, the damage this causes in projects, and how this can be reduced by servant leadership is discussed. Neuroscientific insights on metacognition and mindfulness, and the value of these to managers of complexity are also presented. Lastly, two tools developed by the author are provided for readers to use to assess complexity and complexity-leadership potential in their own organizations.


PMI's Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report: Navigating Complexity (PMI, 2013), found that as organizations increase their project management maturity, their complex projects become more successful, as 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.

The 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 (PMI, 2013).

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 judgment, 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

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 organization if the leader is a CEO. Servant leadership is beneficial to organizations because it engages and develops employees and builds 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 Pulse of the Profession 2015 report, Capturing the Value of Project Management Through Knowledge Transfer, PMI found that organizations which are most effective at knowledge transfer improve project outcomes by nearly 35% over those that don't. PMI wrote that organizations 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” (PMI, 2015). The PMI report noted that a lack of trust within the organization, 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 organization.

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

Lifting Engagement

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 book, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership Into the Science of Results (2002), 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 to reduce the risks of project failure is significant.

Scott of the Antarctic – A Servant Leader

This is how the Antarctic explorer, Captain Scott was able to achieve the successes that he did in his 1902 and 1910 expeditions. We now know Scott delivered two of the most complex scientific and geographic exploration programs of his time. While the focus of Scott's contemporaries was on claiming new territories (and for some of them, simply surviving), Scott's was on science. Scott's expeditions succeeded because of his ability to maintain the trust and confidence of his men and because of the resulting increase in his team's collective performance.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ 2003 best-selling biography, Captain Scott, references a number of comments made by Scott's men that reflect the high esteem in which he was held by those who worked for him. These comments strongly suggest a servant leadership style. Bill Burton (an assistant stoker on Scott's ship) wrote, “He (Scott) wouldn't ask you to do anything he wasn't prepared to do himself.” Edward Wilson wrote, “He is thoughtful for each individual and does little kindnesses that show it.” Tom Crean wrote, “I loved every hair on his head. He was a born gentleman and I will never forget him.”

What is Servant Leadership?

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 organizational 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 center that Greenleaf established to promote servant leadership awareness and understanding.

The theory and practice of servant leadership puts a focus on the interests of the “followers” (those who work for the leader); it creates strong relationships within the organization 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 found 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 globalization.

A concern from some about servant leadership is that, because it is focused on a style which has ”serving its followers” as its goal, this might result in a loss of focus on the needs of the organization. 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 to the organizations that use it.

In regard to the impact that servant leadership can have on team effectiveness, Parris and Peachey found:

“…a servant-led organization enhances leader trust and organizational trust, organizational citizenship behavior, procedural justice, team and leader effectiveness, and collaboration between team members” (2013).

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 that defined six key characteristics (2011):

  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 organization) 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 organization, 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

Another leader from a military background, who managed high levels of complexity and risk in a civilian environment and was supported by a strong servant leadership style, was Colonel John Hunt. Hunt led 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 behaviors. 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-organizing. 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) 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 organization (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, as he greeted other expedition climbers further down the mountain, Hillary said:

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

Neuroscience, Social Pain, and Good Judgment

Servant leader behaviors are of benefit to organizations, increasing team effectiveness and the ability of teams to perform difficult and complex tasks–abilities important in the world of modern project management. But, what makes a leader, his or herself, a good manager of complexity? Powerful insights into the ability of individuals to manage complex situations are emerging from the field of neuroleadership, a branch of neuroscience.

One of neuroscience's emergent findings is that our experiences of “social pain”–the feelings we experience when we feel a social disconnection with those around us (including our work places and/or our bosses)–are processed by our brains in the same way that physical pain is.

Fight or Flight

Naomi Eisenberger summarized some of the research in this area (including her own) in a 2012 paper entitled, “The Pain of Social Disconnection: Examining the Shared Neural Underpinnings of Physical and Social Pain.” The origins of how the brain processes social pain go back to the earliest stages of our evolution. Infant mammals have always been dependent on their caregivers for nourishment, care, and protection. The social connection that infants have with their caregivers is important for their survival. As a consequence, humans have evolved so that threats to our social connections with others use the same pain-pathways in the brain that are used for threats to the physical body (i.e., a social threat to a person is processed by the human brain as a survival threat–something to be escaped). It is felt in the same part of the brain that feels physical pain because urgent action needs to be taken to address the threat.

Eisenberger notes that actual, or even potential, damage to our personal sense of social connection, or our sense of social value, can cause social pain. This can happen, for example, when we are devalued by someone, rejected, or negatively evaluated–events that are not uncommon in the work place.

In a paper by Morelli, Torre, and Eisenberger entitled, “The Neural Bases of Feeling Understood and Not Understood” (2014), the conclusions of the authors included that feelings of not being understood (associated with feelings of being socially distant from others) are also processed by the part of the brain related to social pain.

Social threats, because they are felt as pain, hold a significant potential to reduce our ability to manage complexity in the work environment–the work environment being a strongly social environment, and in major projects, even more so. If we are in a fight or flight mode in response to a physical or social threat, our cognitive and emotional functioning are not fully available to us. Valuable cognitive and emotional energy is diverted to the perceived threat. We become less able to evaluate and process the complex stakeholder and scoping problems that characterize large and high risk projects. Our performance is reduced, and our risks, in an already high risk context, go up.

Summarizing from the Eisenberger and Morelli, et al. papers, social pain, and reduced performance can be caused by threats to our:

  • sense of social connection,
  • sense of social value, and
  • sense of being understood.

Leaders of teams need to be aware of how things they say or do affect the social needs of individuals in their teams. Social threats will trigger subconscious pain responses, which will reduce the ability of teams to manage complexity.

Intuition, Thinking, and Reflecting

Complex decision making works best when it is informed by good intuition. Our logical brains are simply not able to cognitively manage the multiple dynamics and ambiguities of complex projects. The core neuroscience on this topic is not new, but what is new is our need to apply it to the increasingly complex world of project management and to consider the new research coming out on topics such as metacognition and mindfulness.

Daniel Goleman summarized some of the neuroscience on intuition in his book, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results” (2002). Emotions associated with memories are stored deep down inside the brain in the amygdala. It is here that the brain continuously registers decision rules about what works and what doesn't. As Goleman put it, “It's not the verbal part of the brain that delivers the best course of action, it's the part that wields our feelings. ” And, “it takes the inner attunement of self-awareness to sense that message.”

Our feeling for whether an action or situation is right or wrong, coming from a lifetime of experiences stored in the amygdala, can be tremendously valuable to complex decision making. Good leaders of complexity use this all the time–it's called judgment. To effectively access this resource requires, as Goleman noted, an “inner-attunement of self-awareness.” Leaders who are able to think and reflect–developing their inner-attunement and self-awareness– are able to access this resource more effectively than those who don't.

In 2014, Paul McDonald and Yi-Yuan Tang published a paper entitled, “Neuroscientific Insights Into Management Development: Theoretical Propositions and Practical Implications.” Their conclusions included that skill development in managers, including metacognition and mindfulness, based on an enhanced understanding of neurological structures and processes, has the potential to facilitate a new, more agile and adept, managerial generation–just the generation that we need to manage growing complexity in projects.

What is Metacognition?

McDonald and Tang describe metacognition as the capacity to consciously think about what one is thinking. Thinking, not just about our thoughts in the moment, but about the factors that are driving our thoughts, including our assumptions and our biases. Metacognition is a predictor of our capacity to learn from our experiences and the environments in which we find ourselves.

McDonald and Tang reference research that suggests that by learning selective attention (one of several metacognitive neural processes), managers can “better regulate their thinking in the face of overwhelming complexity.”

What is Mindfulness?

McDonald and Tang also concluded that the skill of mindfulness is important.

Mindfulness is described as having a sense of self-awareness and self-observation. Learning to focus one's attention, a common form of which is meditation, can develop it. The ability of managers to “attend to the present,” is a valuable skill for the managers of today's complex project environments. Streams of thought, questions, tasks, issues, and risks are constantly bombarding our minds. Focusing on one thing at a time—working on one thing at a time—is critical in this environment.

The research also tells us that “multitasking” (or rapid serial-tasking, as it is probably more correctly known) in a complex environment is not a good thing. It reduces the ability to picture complex information relationships and to manage ambiguities.

Modern leaders and managers of business today, are being encouraged by neuroscience researchers to pause during their working days (and before and after those working days) and to practice mindfulness exercises. These exercises are stated to improve our ability to break away from the chaos of information, which bombards us all in our busy jobs.

Even just a little practice of mindfulness can greatly improve a manager's ability to stay focused on tasks of importance as they arise, to discard distracting thoughts that are not important, and to be able to step back and observe patterns which might signal the nub of an issue–the same patterns that are built up from multiple life experiences stored in the amygdala, and which, as Goleman said, require an inner attunement of self-awareness for them to be accessed.

By developing our skills of mindfulness and metacognition, including selective attention, we enhance our ability to manage complexity further; we create space in our minds for clearer thinking and intuition to come together to more effectively solve the complex problems we face daily.

Tools for Assessing Complexity and Complexity-Leadership Potential

Exhibit 2 and Exhibit 3, from Project Management Denial and the Death Zone (Avery, 2015), propose two simple frameworks; one for assessing complexity in a project, and the other, a leader's potential for managing it. These were developed from key findings contained in the research referenced above.

Estimating the Relative Complexity of a Project


Exhibit 2: A tool for assessing complexity.

  • 0–33 - the ‘OK’ range
  • 33–66 - the ‘Challenge’ range
  • 66–100 - the ‘Concern’ range

Assessing Leadership Potential for Complex Projects


Exhibit 3: A tool for assessing complexity-leadership potential.

For highly complex projects, a score of 50 (out of a possible 70) or higher is recommended.


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 organizational project management practices. Servant leadership, with its ability to increase the engagement of teams and to increase collaborative judgment, is ideally suited for complex environments. Scott of the Antarctic and Hunt of Everest provide powerful examples for us of what servant leadership looks like in action within a complex program environment.

Recent neuroscientific research on how social pain is experienced by the brain suggests that social pain–a phenomenon that is often triggered by unthinking managers–is highly damaging to teamwork and problem solving in projects. Servant leadership reduces social pain and, so, also the damaging effect on individual and team effectiveness that it creates.

Good judgment–or intuition– is critical to complex project management because traditional cognitive reasoning is not suited to the multiple, dynamic ambiguities that characterize complexity. The amygdala is that part of our brain where decision-rules, about what works and what doesn't work in certain situations, are stored. To exercise good judgment, we need to be able to access this part of our brain, or as Goleman put it, “develop an inner attunement of self-awareness,” in order to sense what the amygdala is telling us. More recent neuroscience tells us that two powerful ways to develop this inner attunement are metacognition and mindfulness.

Avery, G. (2015). Project management, denial and the death zone–Lessons from Everest and Antarctica. Plantation, FL: J. Ross Publishing Inc.

Barbuto, Jr., J.E., Gottfredson, R. K., & Searle, T.P. (2014). An examination of emotional intelligence as an antecedent of servant leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

Eisenberger, N. (2012, May 3). The pain of social disconnection: Examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Fiennes, R. (2003). Captain Scott. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.

Goleman, D. (2002). The new leaders: Transforming the art of leadership into the science of results. London, UK: Time Warner Books.

Greenleaf, R. (1998). The power of servant leadership. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Greenleaf, R. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Costa Mesa, CA: Paulist Press.

Hillary, E. (1975). Nothing venture, nothing win. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd.

Hunt, J. (1953). The ascent of Everest. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd.

McDonald, P. & Tang, Y. (2014, September 15). Neuroscientific insights into management development: Theoretical propositions and practical implications. Group & Organization Management, 39(5), 475–503.

Morelli, S. A., Torre, J. B., Eisenberger, N. I. (2014, January 5). The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Retrieved from

Parris, D. L., & Peachey, J. W. (2013). A systematic literature review of servant leadership theory in organizational contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, 113, 377–393.

Project Management Institute. (2015). Pulse of the profession® in-depth report: Capturing the value of project management through knowledge transfer. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013). Pulse of the Profession® in-depth report: Navigating complexity. Newtown Square, PA; Author.

van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management, 37, 1228–1261.

© 2015, Grant Avery
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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