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Optimize Project Performance by Applying Servant Leadership

If your goal is to perform optimally – working in the most effective way possible to achieve objectives in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – then add servant leadership to your project management tool box.

A Servant Leadership approach will make you a better project manager and enable your team to excel.

Types of managers

There are two extremes on the Servant Leadership spectrum (an unscientific scale I made up). On one extreme there is the leader who is totally devoted to serving his staff and on the other, a leader who is entirely self-serving, not caring about their followers. Seeing them as difficult to necessities for getting things done..

Here are a couple of examples.

Glen was a senior program manager responsible for 3 large programs. Each managed by a program manager and consisting of multiple projects supported by several departments and vendors. The programs were in a public spotlight and often stories made it to the media. Glen was the kind of manager who took credit and the spotlight for all the successes of his programs. At the same time, while he was the focus of critical responses regarding problems, he had no trouble deflecting the spot light to others. For example, when one of the programs was recognized with an award, the award had his name on it instead of the program manager’s.

Glenn’s people worked for him. From his perspective, they were there to make him successful. He led them and used them. From their perspective his staff and peers harbored distrust and uncertainty about his intentions and how they will be effected by them.

Another manager, Hanuman, in a similar position, went out his way to shine the light on his people, the ones who did the work needed to meet objectives. He made sure the name or names of the people working on the projects were prominent.

Hanuman worked for his people. He made it clear that he was there to help them be successful. He made sure his people grew and felt they could lead themselves. He was a servant leader. His people and peers respected and trusted him because they could see no ulterior motives and they appreciated being helped and treated as equals.

Servant leadership is …

Servant leadership is an age-old concept. It means subordinating your ego and need for recognition to the needs of your team and all the stakeholders in your project. Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term for use in modern business back in 1970. He said: “Good leaders must first become good servants.”

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“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

The Servant Leader is behind the scenes. She follows Lao Tsu’s saying “When the work is over and the objectives met, people feel that they did it themselves.” She makes sure that she does everything possible to make them successful.

Servant Leaders dedicate their efforts to the benefit of their followers, projects and organizations, setting aside-self-interest.

Benefits of Servant Leadership

Some might ask “why would I want to set aside my self-interest?” It is a good question. Only saints and messiahs are without self-interest, the rest of us want success and all the other things that make us happy and secure.

The bottom line is that Servant Leadership feels good, once you get past all the obstacles your mind throws up based on past conditioning, fear of losing control and being taken advantage of. While there are deep personal growth and spiritual benefits from serving others, we won’t go into them here. We will stick to the bottom line benefits of productivity and trust.

Project management success is about delivering meaningful results, on time and within budget. It is also about making sure there is an ongoing capacity to be successful across multiple projects.

“Leaders that use the servant leadership style tend to gain a great deal of respect and trust from their employees, according to psychology professor Paul T.P. Wong of Tyndale University College in Toronto. The strong positive feelings between management and employees that the servant leadership style promotes translate into a high sense of morale. When employees are satisfied with their jobs and their company, workplace productivity rises.”

With trust as a foundation, people are more likely to be transparent regarding work issues and to promote greater certainty (for example, estimates will tend to be more realistic) and fewer conflicts. Morale and motivation will tend to be high and that will translate into better performance, assuming a healthy environment and clarity regarding objectives, roles and responsibilities and constraints.

Servant Leadership contributes to

  • The building of strong collaborative teams
  • High quality relationships between leaders and followers
  • Job satisfaction, high performance, and a culture of helping others
  • A culture in which ROI and customer satisfaction are high.

Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Assess your management style based on the following characteristics:

  • Let others know you serve and care and encourage them to do the same
  • Invest your time and energy
  • Do whatever needs to be done
  • Promote and value diverse opinions 
  • Cultivate trust and transparency
  • Cultivate leadership in others
  • Eliminate the negative effects of hierarchy.


Try this for six months. Work towards cultivating these characteristics in a comfortable and practical way that serves your need for security and control and serves your team members, peers, customers, sponsors and the organization. Subordinate your self-interest and become a servant leader. See what happens around you and how you feel.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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