Eight Ways That Project Leaders Can Incorporate a Servant Leadership Style

When Robert Greenleaf published his original essay in 1970 coining the term servant leader, he published it under the title of The Servant as Leader. Apparently, he made a conscious decision to not publish it as The Leader as Servant. He believed that the model of servant leadership begins with service.

He identified the necessary characteristics of a servant leader, which many have written about. In this blog, I want to talk about specific actions that project teams and leaders can take to boost your effectiveness and results.

Let me say up front that I strongly believe in the benefits of a servant leadership style. But I do have concerns about the idea that a servant leader first prioritizes the needs of employees. This is what Wikipedia, the Society for Human Resource Management, Brian Tate, a Forbes Council Member, and others have suggested.

I find it naïve to believe that an employee can always prioritize the needs of their employees, over clients, management, families, or perhaps the press. I think we all have a juggling requirement in our work and our lives. And every individual needs to wrestle with their own value system, as I have written about over the years.

We should definitely put people over processes and deadlines, but which people? Those we love the most, the ones who write our checks, or the ones who make us look good by performing at their best. There is no right answer to this question. And we all wrestle with it every day.

8 specific actions that leaders, designated and not, can take that will boost your results. #servantleader #smartprojex #leadership #projectmanagement #teamwork

But there are specific actions that leaders, designated and not, can take that will boost your results. Here are eight.

1. Set an inspiring vision, rather than just assigning work and deadlines

In traditional leadership, managers focus on taking direct actions that will boost the company’s results. For example, they drive sales goals, or they take actions that will reduce costs. Those actions may be good actions to take. Can you craft them as inspirational visions, rather than just a list of KPIs?

2. Create a safe space for people to work

Teams are better able to manage themselves and the challenges of work when they don’t have to cope with dangers inside of the organization. Part of having a servant leadership style is that you are a healing influence. You make people feel more comfortable. Leaders need to build a safe environment in their organizations.

One way is to model a tone of voice that de-escalates conversations during times of tension. We’ve all worked with folks who have an annoying habit of quickly becoming agitated or who seem angry much of the time, perhaps for good reason. But this angry tone tends to escalate the tension. If we can train ourselves to step back, think, take a few breaths, and respond in a soothing or comforting tone of voice, we can be the calming influence that others need.

Even Jack Welch, who was famous for ruthlessly rearranging teams to improve results, understood the need for a safe work space.

In Robert Slater’s book, 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch, Slater credited Welch with this thought: “The way to get faster, more productive, and more competitive is to unleash the energy and intelligence and raw, ornery self-confidence of the American worker, who is still by far the most productive and innovative in the world…. The way to harness the power of these people is to protect them, not to sit on them, but to turn them loose, let them go — get the management layers off their backs, the bureaucratic shackles off their feet, and the function barriers out of their way.” (p. 77–78)

Part of having a servant leadership style is that you are a healing influence. You make people feel more comfortable. Leaders need to build a safe environment in their organizations. #servantleader #smartprojex #leadership…

3. Respond to feedback or help requests that you could choose to ignore

We all have more to do than we can possibly get done. There is always the challenge of understanding the work that has the highest value. But what does that mean? Are we talking about work that has the highest value to you, as you seek to pursue your own objectives? Or work that has the highest value to the business, or to a client? Or is it work that has the highest value to a direct report or a colleague?

I don’t know about you, but I routinely decline requests for feedback or help. I simply don’t have the time. But frequently, someone will request help that is critically important to them. And so, I put the needs of someone else ahead of mine. It might be a client, colleague, or a family member. Or it could be someone on the other side of the globe requesting a meeting with me.

It’s part of being human and caring about others around you. That’s why I am constantly evaluating what is most important now. Part of embracing a servant leadership style is being willing to serve others.

4. Resolve issues that are blocking team members from progressing

One of the roles that scrum masters play is to clear impediments so that project team members can continue their work. I have written about this over the years as a specific benefit of standing meetings. The goal is for the team to keep the project moving forward, day by day.

5. Look for opportunities and risks — and know what to do with those insights

Foresight is considered one of the characteristics of a servant leadership style. But you must know what to do with that foresight.

For years, I have recommended that project teams embrace the notion of risk management. I have written about the need for the team to take time out and think deeply about the risks to a project. And I’ve included the notion of positive risks in those writings as they can present opportunities. The benefits of having a strategy for risk management is that it helps you know what to do with your insights.

6. Raise people up by effectively matching people with tasks

In agile project management, teams regularly meet to review the past and plan the work for the next sprint. How well do you know the people on your team and what they are looking to achieve? Have you asked others what kinds of work interest them or will help them accomplish a personal goal? When you can match people up with tasks they want to do, they will perform better.

7. Listen actively, ask thoughtful questions, and encourage the quieter ones

Listening is a key attribute of a servant leadership style, as is empathy. But it goes deeper than that. We need to learn how to listen actively. This means that we need to be thinking about what the spoken words mean. What will the impact be? Is someone on the team likely to hear what has just been said and take offense? Will the next steps for the team be clearly understood? It completely depends on the conversation.

I’ll add that introverts, particularly those who are newer in the organization may be quiet. And as a leader you can encourage them and raise them up.

Listen actively, ask thoughtful questions, and encourage the quieter ones. #servantleader #smartprojex #leadership #projectmanagement #teamwork

8. Finding ways to continually improve

Have you ever gotten to the end of a large task and realized that you did it the hard way? How often do you stop yourself in the middle of a task, and ask yourself if there is an easier way? Are you using checklists and cheat sheets to make your life easier? Or always trying to re-invent the wheel?

Are your teams occasionally spending time reflecting on lessons learned to find opportunities for improvement?

I wrote a bit about continuous improvement and lessons learned in Herding Smart Cats, a book I’m publishing next month. I hope you will sign up for the launch announcement.

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Suzanne S. Davenport

Writes on project management, leadership, team building, and value delivery. Imagining work management in the future. Smartprojex.com