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Harness the Power of Servant Leadership

Every project manager steps into a new project with different abilities — a commanding presence, a charismatic voice, a detailed plan, jovial interpersonal skills, a need to organize. You may be a vocal leader or you might lead by example. You might micromanage or you may take a Laissez-faire tact. It all depends on your personality, management style as well as the team you’re leading. One approach is servant leadership, a phrase coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 but used in practice long before that.

What is a servant leader?

Servant leadership isn’t a business concept; it wasn’t conceived in a college classroom or executive boardroom. The notion goes back a long way. Mahatma Gandhi was a believer suggesting “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” as was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who once said “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” No one describes it better than Robert K. Greenleaf: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first… 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…”

A servant leader’s mindset aligns well with the charge of a project manager. You serve — manage a schedule, gather team status, guide decisions, celebrate group successes — a collection of people to achieve one ultimate team goal. You’re not always the final decision maker and you’re not always applauded as the victor. You’re the story’s narrator. You’re the link between chains.

Simply put, a servant leader considers the needs and wants of others before himself. That doesn’t mean making teammates happy in spite of project goals — if you fail the task you’re not doing your job. It means prioritizing your team before yourself. Think about each contributor and how your choices can make them happier, better people. If the schedule allows it, give Jack an extra day to finish the client demo so he can watch his daughter’s play rather than work late. It buys you goodwill and respect. If your goal as project manager is to serve the needs of the individuals within the team, consider yourself a servant leader.

Why you should be a servant leader?

Managing a project while avoiding the spotlight is tough. We see ourselves as leaders and, with those feelings, comes a natural tendency to want more — more responsibility and more money. And you’re most often noticed by the praise you’re given for a job well done. The two — servant leadership and a successful career — might feel like contradictory ideas. But you can have the best of both worlds.

Servant leaders get noticed if they truly commit to the practice. Although graciously crediting your teammates for project successes takes the shine off your achievements, the long-term benefits are tremendous. And the extra time you take coaching and developing others will be returned two-fold when you need it most. Coworkers will respect you more — they’ll give extra time and effort to make your projects successful. Managers will see you as a team player, someone that cares for the success of the whole more than the success of the individual. And clients will appreciate that a team of talented people share the glory of a job well done. Your role as servant leader will garner you more recognition than you’d otherwise receive and doing the right thing feels good too.

How can you be your best servant leader?

Simply stated, put others before yourself. Greenleaf elaborates: “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?”

Project managers serve many roles throughout the course of a project. Assemble the team, schedule the tasks, consult the client, guide the project and finish the work. If you can do those things while placing the needs and wants of others before your own, you’ve succeeded. If your teammates are better off when the project ends than when it began, you’ve done your job. Serve, lead and achieve.