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PM Valentine: team leadership through service and empowerment

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Cheesy, I know, but headlines are a struggle for me sometimes. There’s a group of us, students, friends, colleagues, a community of project management here in Seattle, that meets on a pretty regular basis. This year, we’ve been talking about leadership as a topic, with last month being about leadership versus followership, an interesting conversation about shared accountability for inputs and outcomes. This month we took on February’s love theme to aim toward love through service, and taking it to servant leadership. But we’re PMs and we know to take it up a notch, so we added in a dose of the drama triangle and the empowerment dynamic. What a leadership thought salad! But what PM technique nutrition does that combo really provide? 

Servant leadership puts our leadership why in sharp focus. Are we here to serve ourselves or serve others by creating an environment in which they will thrive, today and also tomorrow? Per thought founder Robert Greenleaf:

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant--first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. 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?

This part is huge. Set aside political savvy, methodology name-calling, navigating strategic priorities, tactical roadmapping and all of that for a hot second and define your leadership true north. Call it the mirror test, if you want, and start your day with it while brushing your teeth, but can you really call out your persistent leadership priority as being the good of those you lead? 

Lots of people have studied servant leadership in different ways, from absorbing coaching catch phrases ("what did you try? what are you going to try next?") to talking about inverted pyramids, but unlike many management and business theories, getting servant leadership wrong, frankly, getting leadership as a whole wrong, as in hows before whys, is as obvious as a safety-pinned hem or bad customer service scripting. It just doesn’t ring true, and it feels unreliable and untrustworthy, which for project management, no matter what methodology, is poison. 

But if you anchor your leadership in a true commitment to the capability of others, which is what project managers are really doing for a living, you leave the team room to own their own success. It changes what you yourself are managing. I used to be the first one to say that PMs manage tasks, not people, and it’s the functional leaders who own the performance management aspect of team leadership. Yeah..... Um, no. It’s taken a while, but I have definitely shifted that thinking, in part because the work has changed, requiring project management to shift as well.  

Projects are complex organisms with volatile approaches, relevance and scope. They move fast, then slow down, then stop altogether and maybe even take a hard right. The expertise on how to get it all done is no longer at the top of the project, it’s in the hands and minds and hearts of all the experts we need to help solve the problem together. Our job in project management is the professional enablement of high caliber collaboration among all stakeholders to rightfully define, prioritize, invest in and achieve positive change. 

Boom. Yeah, a new definition of project management, from a leadership point of view. From a human empowerment, barrier busting, accountability holding, vision confirming, resource optimizing and team aligning/inspiring point of view.   Project management is the professional enablement of high caliber collaboration among all stakeholders to rightfully define, prioritize, invest in and achieve positive change. Each effort and situation requires that we figure out what role that means we take.

On the spectrum of why to what to how, we use the true north of servant leadership to understand our role. A servant leader takes responsibility to facilitate the needs of the led. From relationships and connections to information and tools, all the way to inspiration and vision, a leader seeks and provides. But what are the tools to turn the corner when we’re not aimed quite that well? That’s where the drama triangle and the empowerment dynamic come in. 

These are the tools of change that stay consistent with the idea that we are NOT the smartest people in the room, we’re here to help those who are. One of the most important things we need our team members to do is take accountability for their needs.  We have to help them articulate and communicate so collaboration can work. Requirements, definitions of success, stakeholder priorities, constraints, conflicts, concerns, the ability to communicate clearly in outcome-based language is the most important leadership quality every team member can contribute. 

Both servant leadership and the empowerment dynamic are tools a PM uses to design their own project approach. We don’t call a meeting and kick it off by saying “I’m embracing concepts of servant leadership so I’m going to show our org chart in an inverted pyramid and have you all go through goal alignment together…..etc.”) We know project management is a custom business, each project its own special (menu-driven) snowflake. We have our ingredients/tool kit to pull from. Just like the servant leadership concepts remind us that it’s not about us, the empowerment dynamic reminds us to see the pattern of interactions and communication in our environment that could be converted from a paralyzing feedback loop into an accelerating flywheel. 

When we observe team behaviors that represent a victim, persecutor or rescuer persona, first off, no, we don’t call someone out as “being a victim” and expect that in any way to be a positive conversation. The drama triangle model reminds us to stop and look for the reinforcing feedback loop that is supporting that behavior. It’s a system that we have to interact with, not just an individual. As we help each stakeholder articulate what they need to be successful, in creator, challenger and coaching terms, they learn to use that language with each other as well, shifting other interactions even without our direct help. As project managers, we’re used to thinking about what our stakeholders need, and providing venues to talk about it, like stand ups, status reports, and steering committee meetings.  Now we're giving them ways to make those venues more useful to them and the project as a whole.

The sponsor who seemed only half-in supporting the project can now better call out a concern they didn’t want to raise as success criteria they need included in scope to provide whole-hearted backing. A junior member of the development team can ask for opportunities to pair program with more senior team members to more quickly learn and contribute to team velocity improvement, instead of debating defects. 

Overall, doing this makes our job easier. Instead of trying to read minds, we’re helping people tell us, and each other, what they need and why. It meets the goals of servant leadership, growing others, and it helps toward self-empowerment. All good stuff! What it actually does is let us focus on the fact that the complexity and depth of change and impact projects demand from organizations is increasing, and project managers, of any method, are no longer managing to set outcomes, but to evolving benefits and constraints. We need to make sure our team members, from our sponsors defining business intentions to our vendors providing tools or services, are ready to respond to the changes in conditions, needs, relevance and possibilities that our projects face as we implement change.

So that’s our PM thought starter on leadership for this month! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Your thoughts?

What experiences have you had with introducing new ways to lead or introduce new vocabulary to shift behaviors on a team? Other comments?

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