Servant Leadership

I was planning on taking the day off from blogging, but I got my first blog request this morning.. time to dust off the old type writer =)

Brian Dornsife, MBA, PMP writes: “An interesting topic you might consider blogging about is project leadership. There are obviously many different styles and no one way to be successful, but what is the most effective consistently? When I first came to Octagon, I was a total hard-ass based on my experiences from Dell Computer Corp. I realize today from my experiences here at Octagon and also from my readings (and maybe maturity), a more positive leadership style lasts longer. I am working really hard to learn more positive leadership traits and how to build teams and teamwork with a commitment to each other, not just the project. This subject is a never-ending source of fascination to me. It would be interesting to know how you operated at the Dept. of Defense, and what styles you found to have the most consistent success.”

Leadership Failure

Brian, I too started my project management career as a total hard-ass, and it darn near led to full blown leadership failure on my part.  I’ve always been one of those overachiever push-the-envelope types.  While this led to having completed my Masters degree and getting promoted to my first PM position at the age of 22, my aggressive nature set me up to be a horrible leader.  Beginning my first PM job, I felt unprepared and was facing some major HR obstacles.  My entire project team was over twice my age and had a lot of resentment that I was the one that got promoted because I was so young and had no PM experience.  The first two weeks were hell for everyone.  When I was watching The Apprentice last week, I actually related to Gene in this particular situation, as I was trying to muster confidence and ended up stepping all over my team’s toes.  I was overwhelmed by the combination of having a lack of PM training/experience and the fact that my project team resented me.  Thankfully I had a mentor that took me under his wing and taught me a thing or two about servant leadership, which I believe is consistently the most effective method.


There are a bunch of other effective leadership methods though, that all have their time and place: Authoritarian, Promotional, Facilitating, Conciliatory, Judicial, and Servant Leadership.  These are all covered in our PM Basics and PMP Exam Prep course.

Like I said earlier, all of these leadership styles have a time and place.  Using the wrong leadership method in the wrong situation can be detrimental.  Authoritarian leadership is very effective in the military where strict chains of command are required to keep everyone focused on the task at hand in the midst of hostile environments.

The main focus on promotional leadership is cultivating team spirit.  This works great for sales teams and also for revitalizing an overworked project team.  Team recognition goes a long way, and is something I think project managers overlook all too often.

When you’re managing a project in a domain where you lack significant expertise, facilitating leadership is warranted.  You want to guide your team, but stay out of your engineering team’s way!

In situations where there is either political or personal hostility amongst the project team, conciliatory leadership can be an effective (temporary) leadership method used to get things under control.  I ended up using this method in my first PM job I described earlier.  I had to develop a rapport with my team before we could move forward.

There are times that you need to make difficult HR decisions that require sound judgment.  I once had a valuable team member who was having a REALLY Bad Day!  I asked him to sit out of a certain meeting and take the afternoon off for fear that he was going to tee off on our customer and that I would lose him.

Servant Leadership
Leading by example is one of the most desirable traits a leader can have, and is a major part of what we describe as servant leadership.  In functional and weak matrix organizations where project managers don’t have much authority, this is the only method for motivating (and guiding) your stakeholders.  Also, in my first PM position that I described above, where my project team resented me because I was half their age and had no PM experience, servant leadership was the only effective method.  Had I not discovered it in time I probably would have lost my job!  Thankfully I learned quickly, and had what ended up being a successful 7 year project management career with the Department of Defense. 

Servant Leader King
One of my all time favorite servant leaders is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Without using an ounce of authority (or violence), he completly changed our nation!  I mention him because I think he exemplifies just how powerful servant leadership can be.

Brandon Beemer, PhD, PMP

About Brandon Beemer PhD PMP


2 Responses to “Servant Leadership”
  1. Adam Sinclair says:


    Great blog! I was educated at a very early stage in my career that the hardass approach does not win over many hearts and minds.

    Have you experienced or heard of Situational Leadership? This methodology has helped me considerably in all of my projects since the classes. It takes into account all the different personnality types working on your team and how to motivate them to perform at their peak performance.

  2. Bob Kois PMP says:

    Brandon & Adam,
    Situational and Servant Leadership are two of my favorite styles. Hershy & Blanchard’s book “Situational Leadership” was a must read for most Corporate Managers in the 80s & 90s. Many times this was because Large Corporations were tired of everyone trying to lead through Strength of Personality or the Hardass approach. Their book really helped me and I hope I use Situational Leadership and consider everyone who is part of my team and their individual strengths and needs.

    I had tried to be a Servant Leader too. I became much more aware of the concepts while in my Doctoral Program in Entrepreneurial Leadership at Regent University. I have refined many of my ideas and continue to hope my teams will see me as a Servant Leader.

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