Need to Know: Servant Leadership

Headshot of Waleed Said Elmhrate

Servant leadership isn’t new—but its principles are more valuable than ever. Amid waves of change and new ways of working, organizations need servant leaders—those who eschew hierarchical supervision and instead emphasize flexibility and empathy to empower team members to adapt and thrive. 

The payoff for seeding this mindset is huge: According to a survey by Catalyst, 61 percent of workers who experience empathy from their leaders say they’re more innovative, and 76 percent say they’re more engaged. 

At its core, servant leadership helps to expand and improve collaboration and knowledge sharing among teams, while sparking talent growth, says Waleed Said Elmhrate, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, portfolio manager, STC Solutions, Riyadh. 

“With servant leadership, you are moving from just controlling and giving direction to working as a facilitator for your team, helping your team to win,” he says. 

Elmhrate shares four things project professionals need to know to become a true servant leader: 

  1. Adopt an agile mindset. 
    My interest in servant leadership began when I started studying agile approaches about five years ago. Emphasizing iteration and collaboration helped me shift from giving team members lists of tasks to asking them to brainstorm together about how to manage risk.
  2. Start simple.
    I help new project managers get up to speed by coaching them through a simple project, perhaps with five tasks. Along the way, I guide them to understand the tools and processes they’re using, which in turn builds their confidence. As a result, they feel they can handle the next, more complicated project on their own.
  3. Empower teams to communicate. 
    Servant leaders need to ensure team members take ownership of their work—and communicating with stakeholders is a great place to start. While I still ask to be copied on all emails with a vendor or customer, I allow the project manager to respond to any complaints directly. And if I have any recommendations or directions to give, I’ll do it behind the scenes so the project manager maintains authority in the eyes of stakeholders.  
  4. Develop leaders—not followers. 
    Don’t micromanage. Give your team members space to demonstrate their own leadership. I initially made this mistake when I became a portfolio manager. I had to learn to step back and avoid getting absorbed in tasks that belonged to others. Now, I give team members the opportunity to handle challenges.  

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