Not only is servant leadership a highly effective project management leadership style, it is also highly profitable! Southwest Airlines is often touted as the model servant leadership corporation. Its founder, Herb Kelleher, embodies the philosophy of putting employees first. The highly engaged, low-turnover employee base has generated 47 consecutive years of profitability as of January 2020, prior to the pandemic. This long record is unheard of the in turbulent airline industry.
Another airline that operates with employee interests in heart and mind is AirAsia, led by Tony Fernandes. This is what servant leadership sounds like. When announcing the layoff of 1 in 10 staff, Fernandes affirmed,
“AirAsia is all about its people. Whatever people want to say, we built a great company because of great people, 24,000 great people, and we lost some though it was through no fault of theirs. So my responsibility is to try to get the airline back (on its feet) and provide them other jobs.”
“We are very motivated to win because we are very motivated to rehire and provide as many jobs as we can (for) the amazing staff that had done no fault of their own.”
What is Servant Leadership?
In 2017, PMI recognized Servant Leader an as effective leadership style by adding it to the PMBOK (6th edition, 2017). Prior to that, there were only 4 leadership styles. The oxymoronic term servant-leader was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf 50 years ago,
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
The Project as Servant
Greenleaf recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. This means that organizations are vehicles to provide care to people. In a projectized economy, could projects serve as vehicles to care for people? As project managers, we can ask ourselves, “How does this project care for people? Who are the people this project serves?” This includes stakeholders and project team members. As a reflective question, how can you, as a project manager, lead by example and demonstrate servant-leadership?
I have had the privilege of working for servant leaders and their impact on me is felt to this day and likely to the end of my life. I struggle to remember the names of some of the managers I have worked for, but not these servant leaders. I hope that these case studies will inspire you to become servant leaders to those who work on your projects.
Servant Leadership Case Study 1
It was my first few days on the job. I was checking for letter mail in the mailroom. (Yes, this was decades ago.) I froze and tried not to be noticed when the president walked in. In my previous company, you never approached or talked to the CEO. Well, I was about to find out how different my new organization was. “Hi Wan, how are you today?” greeted the president whom I have never met in person, let alone speak with. As a fresh hire in IT, not a manager or supervisor, I was so surprised that he knew me and my name. I must have mumbled a reply. We had a short friendly conversation. I don’t recall anything specific but I definitely remember the impact that encounter had on me decades later.
That simple greeting was, for me, an example of servant leadership in action. This busy president cared to learn the names of new hires so that he could greet them by name at the very first encounter. As a project manager, you can do the same. In this era of remote work-from-home teams, you can learn the names of everyone on your project team and sub-teams, and schedule a brief get-to-know you online meeting.
Take it a step further and learn the names of every new hire who could potentially be on your project. Reach out to them on their first few days at work. Tell them that they can approach you with questions as they settle into the company. As a project manager, you have a broad horizontal view across the organization. New employees tend to work within their departmental silos. They are generally keen to learn about other departments and key projects. By reaching out and helping new hires early in their jobs, you build relational capital. You have a better chance of getting their support when your project rolls out changes.
Years later, when the president left his post, he again reached out over the phone to say thank you. Again, that’s something that I remember to this day. Not what he said, but that he bothered to call. As a project manager or a PMO, you too can exercise servant leadership by saying a personal thank you to everyone who contributed to making a project successful. Include this in your project plan from day one. Whether it’s a hand-written card with personal notes from project leaders or a video recorded thank you, appreciation goes a long way towards getting the commitment of the same people, already busy with operational work, when you call on them again to put in that little extra effort to achieve your next project goal.
Servant Leadership Case Study 2
This event is seared into my memory for life! It was after lunch at an all-day leadership meeting. We were chatting away at our table, oblivious to the dishes and leftovers. The CEO walked over, asked if I was done, then cleared my plate and cutlery away. I was fairly new to the organization, so I searched the faces of my colleagues at the table, wondering, “Is this normal? Has this happened before?” The look of shock on the face of a director who reported directly to the CEO said it all. Her jaw dropped, she held up her hands in disbelief and shook her head slowly. Obliviously, this had never happened before. And it was a powerful, unforgettable demonstration of servant leadership in action. Now, if the CEO could do this, then every other leader of the organization could emulate it.
As a project manager, your success depends on the contribution of many indirect reports. These project team members have other daily duties competing for their time. Their perception and experience of you will impact how engaged they are and whether they will go the extra mile for you and the project. Recently I heard one person reminisce that project managers used to be kind but many of them have since retired; in the next breath, they complained that new project managers are selfish. Now that is one person’s experience in one company and I would like to believe that it is not generally true. I hope you will do your part to help create the reality of project managers as servant leaders. You will be surprised at how tiny acts of service can help lift the morale of your project team and influence the culture of your organization.
I started by stating that servant leadership is not only effective–it is also profitable. So I checked SouthWest Airlines and AirAsia’s profitability in 2020. Both have been hit hard by COVID-19. What remains to be seen is how fast they can regain profitability in 2021. I will be checking in again on them next year. In the meantime, you can assess the impact servant-leadership on the success and profitability of your own projects.