Servant Leadership

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Developed by Niels Mikkelsen

Projects are complex, uncertain, and composed of people with different personalities. Therefore, in project management, it is important to consider the people and their emotions, which are present and must not be ignored. This requires a project leader with a flair for people, and one such leader is a Servant Leader.

A Servant Leader has a strong desire to serve and work for the benefit of others. He is a person of character and makes insightful, ethical, and principle-centered decisions. He puts people first and helps others meet their highest priority. He is a skilled communicator and listens earnestly and speaks effectively. He is a compassionate collaborator who strengthens relationships, supports diversity, and creates a sense of belonging. He has foresight, so he imagines possibilities, anticipates the future, and proceeds with clarity of purpose. He is a systems thinker, so he thinks and acts strategically, leads change effectively, and balances the whole with the sum of its parts. And he leads with moral authority, so he is worthy of respect, inspires trust and confidence, and establishes quality standards for performance.

Servant Leadership has many advantages; increased motivation, focus on the bigger picture and strong teams, to mention a few. Disadvantages are, for example, that it does not work in all situations, it can be hard to practice for non-naturals, it takes a lot of time, and cannot stand alone in projects that require a lot of structure.

Practicing Servant Leadership in projects that are suitable for this kind of leadership can, hopefully, with the contribution of this article, help the success of future projects and hence the success of programs and portfolios since these are composed of projects.


The Big Idea

Figure 1: Seven pillars of Servant Leadership
Projects are made by people and for people. Yet, most projects have failed right here, especially since it was not until lately that people became truly recognized and incorporated in project management [1]. It has been a mistake to think that people leave their personalities and emotions at home when going to work. So, attracting, engaging and integrating people with their own interests, feelings, ideas, and competencies is not optional but required in project management [2]. Especially since the complexity and uncertainty of projects certainly bring about emotions in people. This complex and emotional environment necessitates a form of leadership that is suited to it, where the people really are the centre of attention with the executive being a true leader rather than a boss. One such form is Servant Leadership.

In short, Robert Greenleaf, a director of management research, who was the originator of the concept of Servant leadership, defines a Servant Leader as one who has a strong desire to serve and work for a higher purpose, for example, the benefit of others. He shares power with followers whom he also shows interest. He also strives to ensure that their needs are met. [3] James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick builds upon the writings of Robert Greenleaf and defines a Servant Leader as a person of character, who puts people first. He is a skilled communicator, a compassionate collaborator who has foresight, is a systems thinker, and leads with moral authority.[4] This is illustrated to the right, where it is also seen that the servant leader works for a bigger picture.

Servant Leadership has several advantages in project management, and these advantages also constitute the purpose of the theory. The first is motivation, inspiration, and loyalty. In complex and uncertain projects, the motivation is more intrinsic than extrinsic[1], and since the Servant Leader empowers his followers, this autonomy generally motivates them (especially in Nordic countries [1][3]). The showing of interest in them and their needs is also highly motivating[1], especially when they have achieved their Maslow needs[3]. The desire to work for a higher purpose and encouraging the bigger picture has the same effect. The servant leaders own sweat and tears also contribute to motivation and creates loyalty as well. Another advantage of servant leadership is the leader's emotional intelligence and self-awareness since research shows that there is a connection between the project leader's ability to deal with emotions and the success of a project[1]. The consideration of the leader - that he trusts, respects, and cares about subordinates - has the same effect, as described in the Behaviour Model of leadership [3]. There are many more advantages, some of which are mentioned in the below section with reference to relevant studies.

Elaborated concept and application

The article will now elaborate on the seven pillars of Servant Leadership to add practical relevance. The elaborated concept and application are integrated into one section since research indicate that the traits can be learned[4], so it is quite straightforward to implement the theory. It just takes a pen and paper and the leader to sit and reflect on what he can change or implement from the theory and how it is put into practice.

Person of Character

Figure 2: First pillar: Person of Character
The core competencies of a person of character are that he maintains integrity, demonstrates humility, and serves a higher purpose. This character behaviour has a huge effect on the quality and effectiveness of leadership: Many experts say that leadership competence is based on character more than technique[5], leaders of character generate more loyalty, creativity, and productivity[6], a Harvard study indicates that most of the leader's performance is due to his personal character[7], and companies with a strong culture of shared values and principles outperform other companies a lot[8].
Maintaining integrity

A person of character makes ethical and principle-centered decisions, and he does not lead by ego but with his conscience. Honesty is the most important ingredient according to a twenty-five-year study on what people most admire in their leaders[9]. Thus, the person of character is also virtuous, trustworthy, and honest.

Simple things one can do to maintain integrity is, for example, to return phone calls, follow up on details, keep promises, and admit mistakes[4].

Demonstrating humility

Humility also contributes to leadership effectiveness[10]. Being humble makes us listen to other opinions. This, in turn, makes us do better and more insightful decisions since it is based on more diverse information. This is especially important in projects due to the high level of complexity and uncertainty.

We also need input and feedback from others and not being defensive when we receive criticism. Humility helps with this. It is important to surrender one's own ego for the sake of the project. Remind yourself that you are not right all the time, and show it to others as well by asking even your subordinates in the project if something is the right thing to do[4].

Serving a higher purpose

A person of character is filled with a depth of spirit and enthusiasm, and he is committed to the desire to serve something beyond himself. The Irish author and philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management, Charles Hardy, states: "The companies that survive are those that work out what they uniquely can give to the world - not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy." [11] The Servant Leader should ask himself what his mission is in life and how he can use his passion and skills to make a difference with his projects. Traditionally in projects, the focus was on execution and delivery of a pre-established scope, but now, projects are about creating value[1]. Hence, the Servant Leader, serving a higher purpose, fits well in projects.

Puts People First

Figure 3: Second pillar: Puts People First
The core competencies of one who puts people first are that he displays a servant's heart, is mentor-minded, and shows care and concern, to help others meet their highest priority development needs. Putting people before profit can, ironically, make a project or an organization even more profitable. A research from Stanford University suggests that companies with a "people first" mentality have a significant competitive advantage and outperform all competitors[12]. Instead of just spouting the slogans "our people are our biggest assets" or "we put people first", a Servant Leader really puts the people before, for instance, profit, and sacrifice self-interests for the sake of others. However, there is a balance, since, of course, a person who sacrifices too much and neglects himself cannot function.
Displaying a servant's heart

Many effective leadership models state that great leaders should show concern for their subordinates, but besides showing concern, an even greater effect is obtained when the leader also is at their service. True leadership emerges from a deep desire to serve and is not something to work for but something that happens by itself[4]. The joy of giving is its own reward: a study suggests that the areas of the brain stimulated through sex, drugs and money are also stimulated by acts of helping others and altruism[13].

Being mentor-minded

A mentor-minded Servant Leader serves in a manner that allows those served to grow as persons. He does not impose his own wisdom but allows them to develop their own. Mentoring should not be about the mentor but the mentee.

Showing care and concern

A Servant Leader xpresses genuine care and concern for others. Caring is not tantamount to being soft and overlooking mistakes, but one must separate the behaviour from the person. It is also more than just being nice. Care is expressed with action. For instance, you could provide opportunities for them to achieve the important needs described by Maslow: self-actualization needs, esteem needs, belonging needs, safety needs, and physiological needs. This way, they should also be highly motivated[3].

Skilled communicator

Figure 4: Third pillar: Skilled communicator
Most projects fail due to lack of communication[1]. A Servant Leader is a skilled communicator. He listens earnestly and speaks effectively. His core competencies are that he demonstrates empathy, invites feedback and communicates persuasively. Many experts say that skillful communication is the foundation of effective leadership. With skillful communication, they mean listening to understand others and expressing one's thoughts, feelings, and needs with genuineness, respect, and clarity[14]. This has many benefits, such as trusting and productive working relationships since the speaker feels attended to and cared about, better constructive conflict resolution, and more. Communication skills are relationship skills, so project managers can seek help from psychotherapy and the relatively new concept of EQ, emotional intelligence, or people skills, which Gerard Egan, the author of The Skilled Helper, which is the most widely used counselling text in the world, defines as empathy, warmth, genuineness, concreteness, initiative (solution-oriented, risk-taking), immediacy (mutual, intimate, "here-and-now" sharing), self-disclosure (appropriate sharing of self), confrontation (challenging others to grow), and self-exploration (self-reflection, inviting feedback)[15].
Demonstrating empathy

"If communication is the joint that holds relationships together, empathy is the connective tissue" [4]. Being empathic is to put yourself in the shoes of others, to temporarily live in the other's life. Be aware of their thoughts, feelings, and needs. To be able to empathize, one must first be able to listen, which is an important skill in Servant Leaders. Many approaches already exist, active listening, strategic listening etc. However, a Servant Leader not only knows the rules of listening but go beyond them by becoming listeners. And not only verbally but also the nonverbal communication.

One can follow these three simple steps and a good technique for showing empathy.

1. Show interest: Stop what you are doing, pay attention even if you are in a hurry, turn towards the person, lean slightly forward, look directly at the face, make eye contact and use your body language.
2. Be encouraging: Avoid evaluating the statements, don't interrupt, express words of encouragement, for example, "I see... that's interesting, you don't say..." etc. Ask open-minded questions, and ask brief open-ended questions.
3. Clarify: Summarize in your own words what you have heard. 2 and 3 will show that you're still interested and actively listening

The conversation can be ended with the XYZ technique: "You feel X, because of Y, and you want Z."

Inviting feedback

Others see faults in us better than we do ourselves. A Servant Leader must therefore not just welcome feedback to appear open-minded but must regard feedback as a gift and not become defensive. All feedback is good if we regard it as an opportunity to improve. When receiving feedback, strive to be[16]: open, responsive, thoughtful, calm, explicit (of what kind of feedback you are seeking, and why it is important to you), quiet, clear with your commitment, accepting and clarifying. And when you give feedback, it should be timely (more immediate), supportive, non-judgmental, specific, well-paced, directive, presented with a request for clarification, and offered by permission.

Communicating persuasively

A leader must influence others, and there are different strategies to how. One is communicating persuasively by using ethos, pathos, and logos. However, it is important that the persuaded person is not manipulated but takes the step himself. Another method is storytelling, which is better than hard numbers if you want to convince someone[17]

Compassionate Collaborator

Figure 5: Fourth pillar: Compassionate Collaborator

A compassionate collaborator strengthens relationships, supports diversity, and creates a sense of belonging and a culture of collaboration. This includes that he invites and rewards the contributions of others, he pays attention to the quality of work life and strives to build caring, collaborative teams and communities, he related well to people of diverse backgrounds and interests and values individual differences, and he manages disagreements respectfully, fairly, and constructively. [4]

His core competencies are expressing appreciation, building teams and communities, and negotiating conflict.

Expressing appreciation

Research shows that employees prefer positive feedback and appreciation even more than other workplace perks, including compensation[18]. And that companies with a positive and collaborative culture did better economically than companies without these traits: on average revenues were increased by 682 percent, on average the workforce increased by 282 percent and on average the company stock prices increased 901 percent[8].

To make employees feel more valued, you can offer them reward options, identify what is meaningful to them, keep recognition programs fresh, train managers on recognition best practices, recognize all levels of employees, give recognition consistently, and develop a peer-recognition program. And when you give praise, do it with a purpose, be specific, consider the receiver and his or her personality, be sincere, and do it often[4].

Building teams and communities

A Servant Leader helps the group, team, or community members to acquire skills to identify and eliminate barriers to their success. A group or team is not a place to satisfy ego or personal gain but to work for what is best for the group. Much theory exists on high-quality, high-performance and effective teams. For example, the Servant Leader should know that dysfunctional teams are due to lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results, and personality clashes[1]. He should, therefore, motivate to the opposite and to:

1. Goal setting: Develop group goals collectively
2. Communication: Open and two-way communication
3. Participation: Equal distributed participation and autonomy
4. Decision-making: Follow a method and include each other in decisions
5. Problem-solving: Controversy and conflict should not be avoided but encouraged in a healthy way
6. Cohesiveness: Create a safe and enjoyable environment

Negotiating conflict

Conflict is unavoidable. A Servant Leader and compassionate collaborator does not think "I win, you lose", and is able to control his anger. He does not see his anger as being caused by others but by his own thoughts. Therefore, he does not let his anger out on others. Many bargaining and resolving techniques exist and some work better than others. The Peace R.U.L.E.S technique for negotiation[19] works for a Servant Leader:

1. Remain calm
2. Unto Others as Yourself
3. Listen to Understand
4. Expect Success
5. Seek outside support

Has Foresight

Figure 6: Fifth pillar: Foresight
Figure 7: Sixth pillar: Systems Thinker
Figure 8: Seventh pillar: Leads with Moral Authority

One who has foresight imagines possibilities, anticipates the future, and proceeds with clarity of purpose. This includes that he views foresight as the central ethic of leadership, he knows how to access intuition, he can articulate and inspire a shared vision, he uses creativity as a strategic tool, and he is a discerning, decisive, and courageous decision maker. His core competencies are that he is visionary, he displays creativity, and he takes courageous, decisive action. [4]

Being visionary

A Servant Leader uses his foresight to see where to go, with a great vision he paints a compelling picture of the destination, and he invites others to follow him. Many books are written about vision and mission statements, goals, strategic objectives etc. But, put simply, a great vision

1. invites us to a great and worthy shared enterprise,
2. paints a picture of a brighter future that connects to our deepest identity,
3. excites with unlimited possibilities, and
4. lures us forward to action with its compelling power,

and it should answer the following questions:

1. "Who are we?"
2. "Whom do we serve?"
3. "How will we serve them?" [4]

A Servant Leader is not afraid to redefine the vision, and he refers to it often

Displaying creativity

A Servant Leader not only permits creativity but nurtures it. What gets rewarded gets done, so reward and practice creativity. The following method can be used:

1. State the problem (to point towards the same direction)
2. Suggest possible solution (apply brainstorming rules here, for example suspending judgment, go for quantity, not quality at first, change perspective etc.)
3. Evaluate and choose possible solutions
4. Test the creative solution [4]

Taking courageous and decisive action

To nurture one's foresight and to be able to take courageous and decisive action, the following model can be used:

1. Analyse the past
2. Learn everything there is to know about the issue at hand
3. Let the information incubate: The heart requires silence between beats, the Servant Leader's practice of foresight requires patience and silence
4. Share your insights with trusted colleagues (to get feedback)[4]

Systems Thinker

A systems thinker is one who thinks and acts strategically, leads change effectively, and balances the whole with the sum of its parts. This includes that he connects systems thinking with ethical issues, applies the principles of Servant Leadership to systems analysis and decision-making, integrates input from all parties in a system to arrive at holistic solutions, and demonstrates an awareness of how to lead and manage change.

His core competencies are that he is comfortable with complexity, demonstrates adaptability, and considers the "greater good".[4].

Leads with Moral Authority

One who leads with moral authority is worthy of respect, inspires trust and confidence, and establishes quality standards for performance. This includes that he values moral authority over positional authority, he empowers others with responsibility and authority, he sets clear, firm yet flexible boundaries, and he establishes models, and enforces quality standards for conduct and performance.[4]


The pillars of Servant Leadership that are presented here are not specific serving-oriented leaders. Some of the theory is mentioned in other models as well and can be practiced successfully by other types of leaders even though they lack a Servant Leadership mindset. However, it can be argued that a leader with the servant mindset, who treats people the same way he himself wishes to be treated, has easier to achieve the emotional intelligence and people skills, which many contemporary theories and models describe as very important. But, of course, the same leadership model does not work everywhere. There are situations, where other types of leadership are required, as stated, for example, in House's path-goal theory, which states that the behaviours that managers should engage in to be effective leaders are contingent on the nature of the subordinates and the work they do. Many examples exist where projects or companies shut down even though the leadership had these people traits[3].

Servant Leadership and sharing responsibility could diminish the leader's own authority. So, what happens if the situation changes and it is required for the leader to take a different approach, for example, if he must fire someone, which cannot always be avoided? A servant cannot fire his master and it becomes hypocrisy when the leader must fire the led whom they are meant to be serving.[20] Also, the serving can get extreme so much so it is unhealthy for the leader himself and also the subordinates, which might see him as less authoritative and less dominant, which thus can lower the overall performance, especially if it becomes demotivating. This can happen if the servant leader constantly fixes the problems or steps in to take care of the needs since the subordinates then can be tempted to relax more and put less effort into the work.[21].

Another limitation is the time it takes a "non-natural" to develop his Servant Leadership. It is not just a project with a starting and end date. It requires a change in attitudes and mentality and is based upon a change in mindset. Also, in companies or larger projects with multiple leaders, it would perhaps require institutional or organizational change and not just individuals engaging in it: What if the other leaders lack the willingness to adapt to this style of leadership? It is plausible that some would resist attempts to undermine their coercive authority by engaging in servant leadership. [20]

There could also be a conflict with the business structure. Some would argue that project leaders should represent the interests of top management and project owners, not project members or employees. Yes, the leader should motivate and support subordinates, but literal service to them could go against inherent business structures.

Annotated bibliography

1. James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick (2015). Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. New Jersey: Paulist Press. The book about Servant Leadership which this WIKI-article is primarily based on. Many of the references mentioned below are also from this book.
2. Gareth R. Jones and Jennifer M. George (2015). Essentials of Contemporary Management. Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill Education. About different management topics. Used to define Servant Leadership and compare to other leadership models.
3. Joana Geraldi, Christian Thuesen, Josef Oehmen & Verana Stingl (2017): How to DO projects - A Nordic flavour to managing projects. Denmark: Danish Standards Foundation. Used to link the theory of project management to servant leadership
4. Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur (2016): Business Model Generation. 1st edition, 6th printing. John Wiley & Sons. Used to shortly describe the method of storytelling in communicating.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Joana Geraldi, Christian Thuesen, Josef Oehmen & Verana Stingl (2017): How to DO projects - A Nordic flavour to managing projects. Denmark: Danish Standards Foundation
  2. Joana Geraldi & Christian Thuesen (2017): People Lecture Slides. Spring class 2017 of 42430: Project Management
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Gareth R. Jones and Jennifer M. George (2015). Essentials of Contemporary Management. Sixth Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick (2015). Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. New Jersey: Paulist Press.
  5. Thomas A. Teal (1998). The Human Side of Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  6. Frederick F. Reichheld (2003). Loyalty Rules: How Today's Leaders Build Lasting Relationships. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.
  7. Warren Bennis (1999). The Leadership Advantage, Leader to Leader 12. Spring.
  8. 8.0 8.1 John P. Kotter and Jaames L. Heskett (1992). Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  9. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (2002). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  10. Jim Collins (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. New York. HapperCollins
  11. The Popular Charles Handy quote found at
  12. Jeffrey Pfeffer (1998). The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press
  13. Shankar Vedantam (2007). If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. Washington Post, May 28, A01.
  14. Two books. 1: Stephen Covey (1989). Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside, 1989. And 2: Peter Drucker (1967). The Effective Executive. New York: HarperCollins.
  15. Gerad Egan (1998). The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management Approach to Helping, 6th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
  16. Fred Nickols (1995). Feedback about feedback. Human Resources Development Quarterly 6, no. 3.
  17. Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur (2016): Business Model Generation. 1st edition, 6th printing. John Wiley & Sons.
  18. Gary Vikesland (2001). Part II: An Unseen Force in Your Company.
  19. James W. Sipe (1994). PEACE R.U.L.E.S!TM Guidelines, Your Conflict Resolution Tool. Detroit: Performance Resource Press.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Mr. Clarke: Advantages and Disadvantages of Servant Leadership. Mr. Clarke's Blog. Visited October 1, 2017.
  21. Neil Kokemuller: Problems With the Servant Leadership Model. Chron. Visited October 1, 2017.
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