The best thing I have ever read on the subject of project management — or management of any kind — is a slim, staple-bound folio of eight-and-a-half-by-eleven inch sheets covered by offensively orange cardstock. The “paper,” as its author calls it, is titled The Servant as Leader. When Robert Greenleaf first published it back in 1970, his work found a cult following loyal enough to keep it more-or-less in print (if we stretch the term “in print” to include the 2008 plain-paper volume that I ordered used from an Amazon affiliate) until I was required to read it for a class in organizational leadership. Today, of course, the full text is available, bootlegged perhaps, online.
Greenleaf begins The Servant as Leader with two words, then two questions, then what can only be described as a parable. The two words, joined by a coordinating conjunction that I choose not to count, are, predictably,
“SERVANT AND LEADER”
That they are printed in all capital letters is likely not coincidence because the first complete sentences that follow ask us, “Can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling?” and “If so, can that person live and be productive in the real world?” Greenleaf answers himself quickly in the affirmative, then proceeds to reassure any skeptical readers that “this paper is an attempt to explain why and to suggest how.” Immediately after, however, he takes a sharp left turn (if by “left” we mean “Eastern”) and introduces Herman Hesse to the conversation. “The idea of The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf confesses, “came out of reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East.”
In this story we see a band of men on a mythical journey […] The central figure of the story is Leo who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.
If you’re like me, Greenleaf didn’t have you at hello. The brisk confidence of the opening paragraph masks an unusual philosophy in the underwhelming language of modern organizational theory. The idea itself is at least as old as Jesus, who, the Gospel of Mark recalls, “sat down, and called the twelve and said unto them, ‘If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all and servant of all.’” Jesus, however, is not nearly so vogue as once he was — and neither is Greenleaf’s idea that “the great leader is seen as servant first.”
The parable Greenleaf crafts while summarizing Hesse’s novel recasts this very old, very cliché, very unpopular theory of leadership in terms that somehow make imaginable leadership by servant-minded individuals. “Leadership,” in this retelling of Hesse’s story, “was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant.” The passive structure of that quotation hides the tremendous respect that underlies the theory of servant leadership. “Leadership was bestowed,” but by who or what? The answer can only be the “band of men” that Leo served and led.
Leadership organized like this is humble and fluid.However, without title, without power of position, and without externally validated authority, servant leadership is for many profoundly unattractive. For me though, these are the things that make it most alluring.
Some years ago, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (currently trending due to the fine writing of Fenton Johnson). The monastery lies some twenty miles east of Elizabethtown among the steep-sided knobs that interrupt the farmland. Once crowded with men, Gethsemani is quiet now. The aging monks who remain no longer work the land themselves but instead make their living by selling cheese and fudge online.
Matthew Kelty, one of those who has passed, remembered the time of the farm in a homily he wrote long ago. “I was out back, burning trash,” he recalled early in the text, “when I heard the unmistakable call of geese from far away.” Storytelling, Kelty went on to describe a flock of migrating geese wheeling in chaotic flight above him. The ordered formation of migrating geese had broken down. “Dissension,” thought Kelty. “Some want to stay over here like they did last year, some want to keep on going, or maybe it was just that the leader tired and no fresh goose was forthcoming.” Whatever the reason, the birds swung wildly overhead “with great noise, each telling the others that something had to be done.”
Now and then a single goose would take a try at leadership and wing off with a few others following him, but no more would take it. It took ten or fifteen minutes for them to reach a consensus, and then, suddenly, one gander took the lead, the others followed, and in a matter of moments a great echelon appeared in the sky. The honking happiness resumed, and they were off […] And I went to Vespers thinking about it.
The homily in which Kelty tells the story of the migrating geese takes faith as its subject. For Kelty, the primary point is that the geese stayed together. Like monks in an abbey, they remained united despite some confusion and even what appeared to an oursider as chaos. Kelty reveals another truth with the story though: the geese knew “there was a leader among them.”
Leadership from within a group is servant leadership. “A mark of a leader,” Greenleaf notes, “an attribute that puts him [or her, we’ll add in the interest of a little gender equity] in a position to show the way for others, is that he [or she] is better than most at pointing the direction.” Servant leadership begins, however, “with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Particularly in context of small project management, the best leaders begin as servants.
In such settings — organizations large enough to need clear leadership and small enough that every part can see whole — the people generally possess the common wisdom of Kelty’s geese who “knew that whoever it [the leader among them] was would emerge and be a leader all would accept, not one imposed.” Leadership is not an honor that can “be snatched by one to whom it was not given.” In Kelty’s story, as in the best teams we’ve all known, when the right leader emerged and harnessed the spirit of the group, “something electric happened: they all agreed, they all followed, order returned, the journey began again. The happy honking told of their peace.”
What makes a good leader is much the same as what makes a good servant. This is because the good leader is a good servant. To be the person Greenleaf describes as “better than most at pointing the direction,” one must listen and understand, accept and empathize. Not coincidentally, a good servant must do these things too.
Years ago, Janet Cooper Jackson wrote this:
“Leadership is not a place, rather it is a process and a relationship.”
Very true. And very easily forgot. The good project manager is capable — having really measured the physical and emotional loads at stake — of saying to the members of his or her team (to quote Kelty mock-quoting a goose): “We know where we’re going, and we know how to get there, and, honey, we are on our way.” That is good leadership. It is focused. It is determined. It is optimistic. But vitally, it happens in the first-person plural, and it refuses to condescend even as it speaks with affection.
A point in Mathew Kelty’s homily that I have glossed over until now is that “no community gets anywhere without leadership and without followship which is consensus in action.” Robert Kelley, most famous for his 1988 essay “In Praise of Followership,” argued convincingly that, “we view the world as a map with leadership in the center and everything else on the periphery.” While his work and the work of many others since has changed that map dramatically, excellent followership remains, in my experience, too often underrated. Kelley more recently outlined five styles of followership, the best of which he calls (in a terming choice pretty reminiscent of kindergarten) the “star follower.” “Star followers,” says Kelley, “think for themselves, are very active, and have very positive energy.”
That this description could pertain to “star” leaders is relevant only so far as it highlights the virtue of independent thinking, activity, and positivity in team members. As Kelley noted in his original article, “organizations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow.” Because of this, it is imperative to “get the right people on the bus” as Jim Collins put it in his (overhyped) classic, Good to Great. Shifting the analogy back to avoid mixing metaphors later on, I’ll rephrase: it matters who joins the flock.
For “honking happiness” to become the standard in a team, the whole flock must be not only equally respected but equally valued. Good leadership recognizes and validates good followership in an effort to foster the kind of “star followers” who “do not accept the leader’s decision without their own independent evaluation of its soundness.” Kelly reminds us that individuals like this are vitally important because, “if they agree with the leader, they give full support,” but, “if they disagree, they challenge the leader, offering constructive alternatives that will help the leader and organization get where they want to go.”
Project management can be the wonkiest of subjects to discuss. More than any other topic relating to organizational leadership, it lends itself to digressions about personality types and calendars and meetings and workflows. All of these things are important — which is good, because I am confident that I will never be loud enough to drown out the many hacks who remind us of their importance. However, I believe that excess attention to the procedural minutia of management fosters a problematic divorce, separating management from leadership.
When managers — project or otherwise — begin to see themselves as overseers of rather than participants in a team, the whole team suffers. And I suspect that people who describe themselves or are described by others as managers rather than leaders tend to be more susceptible to dysfunction. Leadership, whether HBR says it is different or not, connotes a higher degree of personal responsibility than does management.
Servant leadership goes further still, insisting that the leader recognize the proper context for his or her role, a role that is supportive of rather than superior to the team.
From this vantage point, it is much easier to value and to support the kind of excellent, “star” followers that make even complex projects feel as if they are managing themselves. Matthew Kelty reminds us: “If the birds are not flying full with all they have, the pattern falls apart.” The converse is likewise true: if the birds are flying together, “It can be a marvel of beauty to restore hope to the wondering and confused.”