In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf already set forth the idea of “The Servant as Leader” in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. A Servant Leader should be focused on “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Such a leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership inverts the norm, which puts the customer service associates as a main priority. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. This is very much different to traditional leadership styles, focusing on “command and control”.
There is definitely a need for a new leadership style, in general yet especially in projects. In general, because during the last couple of years societal values significantly changed. The young generation does not want to follow the traditional leadership style. They want to self-organize, make things happen themselves and challenge the existing systems and norms. In addition, the pace of transformation and change cannot be tackled by one leader alone. Disruptive technologies, developments and trends require collaboration, cooperation of many, all team members and network partners simultaneously. Escalating issues from the trenches to a leader or cascading decisions from the leader back to the team takes too much time. Teams want and need to be empowered and take more responsibility, including leadership (see our blogpost “Is heterarchy the answer to the crisis of hierarchy?”).
However, what is the servant (project) leader actually doing? First of all, serving the team to achieve the project goals! It is necessary for the team that the leader is clarifying the tasks, the goals and foremost, the expectations of the customers. It means that the leader acts as sales person, as spokesman or ambassador for the project, as negotiator etc. This framing is important for the team to start working on the tasks. Tasks will be self-organised, it does not necessarily need a leader to do that. A leader may moderate the meetings, support in communication, enable collaboration and team work (e.g. organise team building and events) and facilitate in case of conflicts or crisis. Servant leadership means in essence to provide enough space for the team to perform project-related tasks. A servant project leader may be the bridge between the line organisation and the project, balancing resources and workload as well as the communication between the two types of an organisation.
Servant leadership also means support for individual project team members. First and most important, the leader needs to engage the right people for the project, balancing the requirements of the project with motivation and qualification of people available. Servant leaders help people to grow through their tasks, for example through coaching, mentoring or training on the job. (S)he does not necessarily need to do this on her or his own, but engage specialists based on actual needs of the project team.
In essence, this requires a major change in thinking, acting as well as in competences necessary to fill the role of a project leader. In the past, a project leader was an expert, with excellent skills for planning and controlling based on knowledge of “best practice” methods. As expert, (s)he did most of the project planning and controlling, team members were just to support through “doing things”, following the pre-set plans. Soft skills or the “people” competences of IPMA´s ICB 4.0 are more important than methods & tools for successful leaders. Experience on engaging stakeholders, project teams, line managers etc. and supporting the development of all people engaged is more important nowadays. Servant leaders need psychology more than engineering know-how. They are the “mid-wife” for a project team to get things done. However, there may be situations, in which the servant leadership style does not suffice. For example, in a crisis or in an Automotive project phase close to the Start-of-Production this style may not be the best option. A project leader should be able to select from different leadership styles and apply the approach that fits best the situation of the project, including but not limited to the project phase, the people engaged, the culture of the embedding organisation or the project leader´s mindset.