Osnat Niv-Assa, PMsphere, Tel Aviv, Israel
by Sandra A. Swanson // photo by Gil Lavi
INVERTING THE PYRAMID
The concept of servant leadership isn’t
new. It actually originates in such phi-
losophies as the Tao Te Ching, written
around the 6th century BCE. But it
caught on as a business buzzword in the
1970s, when former AT&T executive
Robert K. Greenleaf wrote The Servant
as Leader. Although it’s now a stan-
dard tenet of leadership training, many
By their very nature, leaders, are, well, people and organizations still struggle
supposed to lead the way. But sometimes with implementation of servant leader-
embracing the qualities of a good fol- ship, mainly because it upends traditional
lower can make a more effective leader. thinking.
So-called “servant leaders” focus on Much of what we assume about
the needs of their teams rather than leadership is rooted in a hierarchical
adhering to a top-down hierarchy cen- view of organizations, says Dipanker
tered on commands barked from the Das, PMP, senior project manager in
upper echelons. For project managers, the New Delhi, India office of CGN, a
the leadership style can help secure global consulting firm.
buy-in from team members by playing “Our classic image of the effective
to their particular talents. leader is one who is strong,” he says.
“Project managers are ideal exam- In other words, someone who has the
ples of servant leaders,” says Don Led- answers, someone who may seek input
better, director of management and but who ultimately makes the decision.
organizational effectiveness at L-3 “The leader is expected to know best,”
Communications, a defense contractor Mr. Das explains.
headquartered in New York, New York, This creates the prevalent top-down
USA. “The role they play is to work view of organizations. But flipping the
to meet the customer’s and employer’s organizational chart and working from
objectives. Leaders must work to make the bottom up “suggests a fundamen-
the team successful, which means put- tally different leadership role,” he says.
ting aside the leader’s ego and issues For project managers, it means
to focus on the team’s success. In this “always keeping the interests of others
context, a leader must be selfless.” first, understanding their needs and
That philosophy can take some get- recognizing the necessity of developing
ting used to, though. the people on the team.”
Servant leaders foster the
growth of the members of the
organization so that each may
achieve their full potential.
—Dipanker Das, PMP, CGN, New Delhi, India
60 PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG
Project managers struggling with looming schedule and budget constraints
might feel it’s better to just take charge and give orders to team members.
But that can actually be counterproductive.
“One of the ways to achieve engagement is to motivate members to take
a leadership role by delegating authority to them,” says Osnat Niv-Assa,
PMsphere, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Here’s some advice for helping team members transform into true leaders
from Monica Semeniuk, PMP, an independent project manager in Edmonton,
Demonstrate the behavior you would like others to emulate. “There is
nothing as powerful as seeing a living example of leadership, and how others
respond to it, to inspire others to take similar actions,” she says.
Provide training. “Give team members the opportunity to learn the concepts
behind leadership and to experiment with new behaviors in a safe setting,” Ms.
Show support. “Listen to the team members’ thoughts and concerns,” she
says. “Help them to see themselves as leaders. Provide encouragement and
feedback when they show leadership or when you anticipate potential oppor-
Reinforce desirable behavior. “Rewards need to be sensitive both to the
organizational and environmental culture, as well as to the individual,” Ms.
Semeniuk says. “A quiet word of congratulations may be more meaningful to
some people than parties at an expensive hotel.”
By taking on the servant leader role, Israel-based PMsphere, an IT manage-
project managers help ensure each indi- ment company.
vidual brings his or her own experience A dash of servitude can be just what
and expertise. project managers need to win over
“Project management typically takes new team members. “Qualities that are
place in a cross-functional and often required for motivating people can be
a matrixed environment with diverse found in servant leaders”—empathy
internal and external stakeholders,” Mr. and persuasion, for example.
Das says. “The successful project man-
ager will be one who works to bring THAT DOESN’T QUITE
this diverse group together toward a SOUND RIGHT
common goal, with a shared vision and There’s one major complicating factor,
with a focus on the whole.” however: For people who aren’t familiar
Servant leadership can be especially with servant leadership, the term itself
effective given that project managers can be misleading.
aren’t always granted official authority “The word servant tends to imply
over team members. that the person simply follows orders
“A project manager has to motivate and fulfills the requests of the ‘mas-
people and devote them to the proj- ter,’” says Monica Semeniuk, PMP,
ect, in particular when they are not an independent project management
under his or her direct responsibility,” consultant in Edmonton, Alberta,
says Osnat Niv-Assa, CEO of Tel Aviv, Canada.
OCTOBER 2010 PM NETWORK 61
“They are not motivated by power,
nor do they have an ego need for
authority,” Mr. Das says. “They tend
to be selfless, altruistic, humble and
motivated by some greater purpose or
greater good. Servant leaders foster the
growth of the members of the organiza-
tion so that each may achieve their full
potential. While formal authority may
get superficial compliance, high levels
of engagement and discretionary effort
come when people make a choice to
SERVING MANY MASTERS
Fundamental to this leadership style
is asking, “How can I help?” Equally
important, though, is how a leader
behaves when team members ask for
It’s not merely the act of listening
that distinguishes servant leaders. They
“listen not to seek input so that they
can make a decision, but for what the
organization needs from them to enable
others to make effective decisions,” Mr.
You can’t please everyone, though,
“This is a far cry from the role of warns Ms. Niv-Assa. “Listening to peo-
Listening to people the project manager. We are expected ple sometimes triggers project modi-
to utilize our expertise and experience fications,” she says. “Try to limit the
sometimes triggers to provide the best solution that meets number of project modifications, and
the strategic objective of the project,” avoid changing the scope according to
project modifications. she says. “This may include offering a single person’s request.”
alternative solutions, recommending In that regard, servant leaders must
Try to limit the number termination of a project or even diplo- walk a fine line. Supporting the needs
matically questioning the selection of a of followers does not mean attending to
of project modifications, project from the very beginning. None their every whim.
of these responsibilities fit within the “Advocates of servant leadership who
and avoid changing the traditional concept of being a servant.” suggest that the leader should focus on
Some project managers may also be meeting the needs of the team members
scope according to a wary of the passivity implied with the are forgetting that our first priority
term. must be to meet the needs of the proj-
single person’s request. “Servant leaders are sometimes mis- ect’s sponsor,” Ms. Semeniuk says. “Is
—Osnat Niv-Assa conceived as people without leadership this a license to ignore the needs of the
skills because they don’t use power to team? Absolutely not! It is the job of
manage their people,” Ms. Niv-Assa the project manager to find balance and
says. alignment of those varied needs from
>>READ MORE ABOUT Servant leaders tend to focus on the multiple stakeholders.”
FOLLOWERSHIP IN organizational rather than personal It seems servant leaders have many
VOICES ON PROJECT success—with the idea that if the com- “masters”—and it’s up to them to find
MANAGEMENT ON PAGE 64. pany succeeds, so will they. the balance. PM
62 PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG