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Susanne Madsen: Servant leadership Is More than a Leadership Style


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan (English name: Spring)  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.08.08

(Note: The interview is specially made on the topic of “servant leadership”.)

Introduction to the interviewee:
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership. Prior to setting up her own business (, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM). Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting. Read more on: www.susannemadsen.

Specialties: Leadership on projects, Executive coaching, Project Management training, Project kick-offs, Lecturer and key note speaker on project leadership.


Characteristics of Servant Leaders
Q1. What is “servant leadership” by definition? Would you please offer a description of a perfect “servant leader”?
Susanne Madsen: Servant leadership means that the leader puts the needs of those they are leading before their own needs. Rather than serving themselves and being steered by self-enhancement values, servant leaders are driven by self-transcendent values linked to growth, contribution and connection. They gain satisfaction from empowering others, from contributing to a cause greater than themselves, from continuously learning, and from knowing that they are doing the right thing. They have an honest approach to their work and tend to be transparent and open. When things go well, they look out of the window and let others take credit. When things go wrong, they look in the mirror and take responsibility.

Servant leaders don’t play favourites or engage in dishonest politics. Rather than being interested in power, money or prestige for themselves, they have a desire to serve their team and clients and enable others to make a difference. They have a clear view of what their client’s needs are, and they seek to fulfil them with utmost care and judgment. We could say that servant leaders are givers who seek to empower people to contribute to the client’s bigger vision. They naturally lead by example and recognize that being a leader is a privilege and a responsibility that must never be abused or taken advantage of. 

Q2. What are the typical qualities of “servant leaders”?
Susanne Madsen: One of the qualities of servant leaders is a high amount of emotional intelligence, good listening skills and the ability to coach. Servant leaders acknowledge other people's perspectives, give them the support they need to meet their goals, involve them in decisions that affect them, and build a sense of community within the team. The ability to listen, support and maintain stability can be symbolised by the feminine yin element. Leaders use this element to build the team’s confidence and to develop skills that are lacking. They encourage collaboration and provide a safe environment for team members to work together and come up with their own solutions. Yin leaders are also good at praising people for a job well done and will often ask what type of help the individual needs. This style is enabling and is concerned with making it possible for others to flourish, lead and contribute.

But servant leadership is not only characterised by supportive yin. It’s also important that leaders can access their challenging yang side. Yang symbolises the masculine element, which is challenging, demanding and factual. Servant leadership is not about being nice all the time. It’s about serving the client and developing a high-performing team to enable that. Interestingly a high performing team isn’t necessarily the most comfortable place to be because it’s constantly being challenged to improve and innovate. Yang leaders have a strong sense of direction and are results-driven. They set a high standard, ask difficult questions and challenge the team to deliver to the best of its ability. 

You could say that yin is a predominantly heart-based approach, whereas yang is a rational and head-based approach. When these two elements are combined, we find servant leaders who use equal amounts of warmth and strength; they involve people in the decisions that affect them and they ask questions that empower and stimulate creative and innovative thinking. They challenge the team to reach a high standard and they provide them with the support required to do so. The outcome is a higher level of engagement, more trust, stronger relationship and increased innovation.

Reasons for Popularity of Servant Leadership
Q3. Why do you think “servant leadership” is getting increasingly popular?
Susanne Madsen: With new generations entering the workforce there is an increasing demand for leaders to involve teams in the work they are doing and to help people grow and find purpose in their work. Millennials don’t just want to be told what to do. Instead they want to be involved. A traditional command and control management style works well in a setting where the manager holds all the knowledge and is instructing a team of unskilled workers. But in our era of knowledge workers, team members often understand the subject matter better than the leader. The leader’s role is therefore not one of giving orders but one, which helps team members apply the knowledge they already have and expand upon it.

The need for engagement and involvement is further accentuated because we now live in a VUCA world. As our environment is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, one leader simply cannot hold all the answers. Leaders rely to a larger and larger extent on the team to find the answers, to innovate and to deliver great outcomes.

Performance of Team Members under Servant Leadership
Q4. When the leader is leading in a serving manner, will the employees act like masters with more enthusiasm for work? How should employees act so that “servant leadership” can reach the desired results?
Susanne Madsen: I wouldn’t say the employees or team members become masters but I agree that their level of engagement, collaboration, sense of purpose and enthusiasm grows. That’s because they feel listened to and because they have real influence on their work rather than simply being told what to do. On the other hand, team members must actively step into the challenge, act responsibly and recognise that they are working with a leader who is doing the best they can with the resources they have. 

Q5. Is “Servant leadership” applicable to all project-oriented industries?
Susanne Madsen: Yes, I would say so. But leadership always needs to be adapted to the situation at hand and to the person who is being led. Servant leadership is an approach and an attitude more than just a leadership style. A servant leader needs to adjust his or her level of yin and yang to suit the environment.

Application of Servant Leadership
Q6. What are the major barriers in applying “servant leadership”? What should we pay special attention to in applying “Servant leadership”?
Susanne Madsen: The biggest barrier is perhaps a leader’s own ego - that part of our personality, which is tempted to serve itself. Some people have a big need for significance and may fulfil this need by using situations, colleagues and subordinates as a means to gain greater power, money and recognition. I’m sure we have all experienced people who primarily cared about their own advancement and who made decisions that would see them progress within the organization. When people take out as much as they can from their surroundings, they don’t serve anyone other than the greedy part within themselves.

Another barrier could be an old-fashioned organisational culture where leaders are expected to make all the decisions and where the challenging yang-element is favoured over the feminine yin-element. In such organisational cultures, servant leaders may need to initially move quietly and let their results and stellar team performances pave the way. 

Q7. “Servant leadership” is NOT contradictable to other leadership styles such as “balanced leadership”, right?

Susanne Madsen: That’s right. Servant leadership is an approach, which compliments several leadership styles. You might for instance find a servant leader who makes use of a coaching style, a visionary style and a democratic style. You will also find similarities between servant leadership and transformational leadership.

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