When I was a little girl, my mother did not raise me on traditional fairytales.
She thoroughly enjoyed history, and so loved recounting tales of heroes of old. My favorite hero was, and likely always will be, Napoléon Bonaparte, the great conqueror from old France.
As a young francophone girl—and short to boot—Napoléon embodied everything I wanted to be: genius, resourceful, respected through time, and a wonderful leader. His legacy of leadership embodies who I want to be: a little, loved victor.
Napoléon was humble, persistent, innovative, and absolutely infectious. He is best known for leading by example and not raising himself to be superior to his own troops. Napoléon would know each of his soldiers by name and would take the time to get to know many of them. He was known to inspire his people with ideals and goals that no one thought possible. He swept France with his charm; loving Napoléon was akin to loving one’s country.
Napoléon, regardless of how kind history has been to him, personified servant leadership—a skill that all project managers should aspire to have.
What is Servant Leadership?
While the idea has been around for millennia, Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term in a 1970 essay called, “The Servant as Leader.” He writes,
“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… 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?”
In other words, servant leaders put their team far above themselves, and worry about improving each individual while also focusing on the goal at hand.
Of course, while Greenleaf first summarized the idea of a servant leader, others have been writing about it for centuries.
Consider this: The Bible proclaims, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
And Nelson Mandela added, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
The idea of servant leadership has been passed down through generations from the greatest inspirers in world history.
Now it’s time for project managers to apply this invaluable information.
Step 1: Balance serving your team with serving the company
What comes first, the business or the team? Without the business, the team doesn’t exist. But without the team, the business is not viable. Your service should be equally distributed to both. That means that sometimes, the team must come before the short-term interests of the company, or vice-versa. Too often, project managers believe that they only serve the bottom line. What they don’t realize is that the bottom line is often facilitated by long-term investment in the supporting players.
Step 2: Practice grateful leadership
Stephen R. Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote, “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” Many measure their self-worth based off feedback from others. Project managers have worked up through schooling and their companies with likely a lot of help that they are inevitably grateful for. But the gratitude shouldn’t end at your personal career progression.
Indeed, leading team members with gratitude is an invaluable skill that every PM should master—and it has to be authentic, or else it can come off as patronizing. Your first job as project manager is to set goals, and the second is to be appreciative to your team for getting it done.
Step 3: Be realistic with your deadlines
There’s a reason why Office Space was such a funny movie: It strikes a chord with far too many employees. In the scene where Lumbergh asks Gibbons to come in on Saturday (that’d be greeeaaattt), it’s a result of poor project management skills. Gibbons gets the short end of the stick and feels resentful toward his manager.
Being realistic about deadlines acts both in service to the company and to the team. You owe it to your teammates to be clear and fair about your expectations.
Step 4: Model ideal employee behavior
If a team member is working harder than you, you’re doing something wrong.
Project managers must accept their responsibility to behave as exemplary workers. Why? Because team members are looking to you as a guide for how to behave. If you want your teams mates to get to work early and leave late, get there earlier and leave later than they do. If you want your team mates to have perfect time sheets, make sure yours is exemplary first.
There can’t be two codes of conduct—one for you and one for your team. And don’t forget that this extra effort is in service to your team, not yourself.
Step 5: Make communication a two-way street
Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, “As often as I try to persuade people to share their honest views, it’s still a challenge to elicit them… miscommunication is always a two-way street. If I wanted more suggestions, I would have to take responsibility for making that clear… I told [my team] that I wanted their input early and often.”
Project communication is about more than just checking in on your team mates’ progress. Elicit feedback from your team—and encourage them to be open with you. That means shutting down sensitivity to criticism and being consistently proactive about improving yourself, your team, your process, and your company.
Servant leadership has been the model for successful businesspeople and leaders for millennia. Project managers must exemplify these traits in order to lead an effective team, regardless of if they’re rolling out a new product or trying to conquer Europe. I’m sure that there are more actionable items that I missed.
Do you have more suggestions? Leave them in the comments below!