Five Servant Leadership Examples Who Can Inspire Project Teams

Suzanne S. Davenport
6 min readOct 27, 2022

In my last blog, I discussed ways that project leaders, both designated and undesignated, can adopt a servant leadership style. In this blog, I want to talk about several servant leadership examples, including Abraham Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth. I’ll offer five lessons that apply to project management but also organizations in general.

And currently, as we gaze on the leaders in the US federal, state, and local governments, we can wonder where the servant leaders are. When leaders are elected, they are somewhat bound to serve their constituents. But what happens when the needs of their constituents conflict with a larger principle, such as climate change? And in the business world, what happens when the needs of your team conflict with requests from management or your spouse? It’s a juggling act as I will discuss.

Five Examples of Servant Leadership to Inspire Your Project Teams #projectmanagement #leadership #teams #teammanagement #smartprojex

1. Abraham Lincoln: Stay close to the people you work with

Many people thought Abraham Lincoln was a master communicator. He was known for being able to talk with all kinds of people at their level. He was known for his storytelling and his persuasiveness. And he could reduce the complex to the simple. These abilities are great for project leaders. But in my opinion, one reason that Lincoln succeeded is that he was a people person. He didn’t hide behind data and desks.

According to author Donald T. Phillips, Lincoln believed in people, in individual rights, and in the need to stay close to his people. He reportedly said: “Gentlemen, suppose all the property you were worth was in gold and this you had placed in the hands of one man to carry across the Niagara River on a rope. Would you shake the cable and keep shouting at him: ‘Stand up a little straighter; stoop a little more, go a little faster, go a little slower, lean a little more to the south?’ No, you would hold your breath, as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he got safely over. The Government is carrying an enormous weight. Untold treasure is in their hands. Don’t badger them. Keep silence and we will get you safely across.”

Takeaway: Get to know everyone you work with and give them the tools and the space they need to perform at their best.

2. Dalai Lama: Build trust on your teams

I recently read a review on a new book, talking about the dismal failure of a massive Google project to build a smart city in Toronto. According to the review by Jordan McDonald:

Sidewalk Labs, a Google affiliate was tasked with transforming a 12-acre waterfront neighborhood into a smart city. In this endeavor it partnered with Waterfront Toronto. It was formed in 2001 to “tackle big issues along the waterfront that only collaboration across all three levels of government could solve.”

The project didn’t go well and Google has now abandoned it. One reason was that trust between the many key stakeholders evaporated over time. With the three governmental groups (local, state, and federal) having equal rank, the project team had a hard time getting decisions made and policy needs addressed. Sidewalk Labs didn’t seem to appreciate the multiple layers of bureaucracy that it was dealing with. Residents were frustrated by the lack of transparency and the extent of surveillance that was required to make the city “smart.”

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is one of the finest servant leadership examples I can name.

In The Book of Joy, Douglas Abrams describes a five-day meeting that he arranged between his Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Abrams quotes the Dalai Lama, “If you really feel a sense of concern for the well-being of others, then trust will come. That’s the basis of friendship.” (p. 74) To build trust on your teams and in your organizations, help people create a stronger sense of compassion for each other.

Takeaway: Build trust on your teams by showing empathy and compassion with your colleagues.

3. Desmond Tutu: Develop joy and happiness on your teams

In the same book, Abrams discusses Tutu’s thoughts on joy and happiness. According to Tutu, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” (p. 3) The discussions delved into the “very ‘purpose of life’” — the goal of avoiding suffering and discovering happiness.” (p. 3)

A good bit of the book digs into the science behind joy. Gratitude, smiling, and humor go a long way in the working world. “Gratitude may stimulate the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating stress in the brain, as well as the ventral tegmental region, which is part of the reward circuits that produce pleasure in the brain. Research has shown that the simple act of smiling for as little as twenty seconds can trigger positive emotions, jump-starting joy and happiness. Smiling stimulates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress and unleashes a feel-good cocktail of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.” (p. 248)

Mirror neurons, those smart brain cells that respond to emotions or behaviors in others, can help us build empathy. Abrams describes the sensation as a “tingling in my forehead and then a sharpening of focus as various parts of my brain started to quiet and calm….” (p. 178) We do need to understand that we might unknowingly mirror the actions or emotions of others and, depending on the kind of behavior that we are “mirroring,” we can act without thinking. Meditation can help lengthen the time between the stimulus and our response.

Takeaway: Develop joy and happiness on your teams. Laugh together. Have fun with each other.

4. Queen Elizabeth II: Model and encourage perseverance with humility

Two of the hallmarks of servant leadership are a commitment to the growth of people and building community. These things take time. And they won’t happen if you are a jerk.

Another of the greatest servant leadership examples that come to my mind was Queen Elizabeth II. Anyone who has reigned over a country for 75 years and attracted the outpouring of love and respect that she did, in my opinion, has modeled perseverance with humility. And if you were one of the millions who tuned in to watch her funeral service you heard the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talk about her as a servant leader.

But sometimes, over the course of a project, we need to quit. And we need to know it’s time to quit. There’s no point in continuing to persevere on the wrong project, given the times that our organization is facing. I’ve written before about when to cancel a project early and there continue to be challenges about when to quit and when to persevere. I can’t remove those challenges, but I can give you ways to think about the dilemma. It’s a question of leadership.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of effective leadership. According to Paul C. Light, a Brookings Institute researcher who has been researching US government failures for years, the problems most often involve improper oversight, confusing missions, and poor leadership. From my experience, this is true whether we are talking about projects, operations, or outsourced work done by contractors.

Takeaway: Encourage perseverance from your team. Be humble and accept that there may be times when the team knows it is best to quit.

Two of the hallmarks of servant leadership are a commitment to the growth of people and building community. These things take time. And they won’t happen if you are a jerk. #projectmanagement #leadership #teamwork #smartprojex

5. Robert Greenleaf — Look for creative ways to support others

Greenleaf spent about 40 years at AT&T, researching management and employee development. He concluded that authoritarian styles of management were ineffective and developed the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

One of his takeaways is the need for colleagues to creatively support others. It might mean offering feedback on a new feature that your co-worker is building. Or it might be offering thoughts on a particularly difficult issue that a colleague is facing.

The challenge is to know how to help in the most time-effective way. We all have our own work to do. If we spend our days spread too thinly helping our colleagues, we won’t get our own work done. It’s a day-to-day juggling act, but once you’ve gotten your highest-value tasks completed, ask yourself how you can support your colleagues.

Takeaway: Get your own important work done and then, find a little time to support your colleagues.

What servant leadership examples come to your mind?



Suzanne S. Davenport

Writes on project management, leadership and reimagining work. Author: Herding Smart Cats.