Leadership Theory – Servant Leadership


Prepared by: Majed Abdeen

To me, a people-oriented approach is critical for organizations and projects that value strong customer service and team focused approaches in their leaders. I find my personality naturally fits with the recommended leadership theory for the sector I work in, Software/IT, which is the Servant Leadership approach. Servant leadership is the new trend in this sector, and it is becoming more prominent due to the increasing use of the Agile approach. As a servant leader, you're a "servant first" – you focus on the needs of others, especially team members, before you consider your own needs.

In my experience in the software sector, there is a large volume of documentation and reports required, which can be a nightmare for most of the developers and the technical team. Since I have technical background, I always find solutions to serve the team with synchronized and shared templates, in order to reduce the amount of work they need, and increase the quality of this kind of routine job. I see this as an example of Servant leadership. Another example would be supporting and training my team when their skills are not sufficient for the task in hand. Both of these are behaviours required by servant leadership: removing obstacles and obstructions for the team, and promoting self development of team members.


Of the key Leadership Theories, each defines a style appropriate for specific situations/teams (PMI, 2017a, p. 350); literature examination indicates six key schools of thought: Trait; Behavioural; Contingency; Visionary/Charismatic; Emotional Intelligence, and Competency (Turner & Müller, 2005, p. 50). Originally focused on traits, Leadership Theory expanded, incorporating both situational context and interpersonal relationships (Müller & Turner, 2010, p. 438).

Servant leadership

Servant leadership, identified by Robert K. Greenleaf (SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 61), is a current trend in Project Management and Leadership Theory literature (Dierendonck & Patterson, 2010, p. 106), advising putting others first, supporting learning/development, providing autonomy, and emphasizing strong relationships/collaboration (PMI, 2017a, p. 65). Servant leaders value their teams, creating communities versus serving their own interests (Dierendonck & Patterson, 2010, p. 108).

Why Servant leadership?

This theory appears contradictory: "leaders influence, and servants follow" (Northouse, 2016, p. 225); successful Project Managers have strong critical thinking skills, are adept at resource management, empowering/developing teams, influencing/motivating, and display sensitivity/conscientiousness (Müller & Turner, 2010, p. 445). Servant leadership allows Project Managers to display these behaviours, as demonstrated in the model below (Northouse, 2016, p. 238):

As seen, the outcome leads to team development, improved team/organisation performance, and a positive impact on society. Ethical Project Managers who empower/develop their followers, demonstrating leadership that benefits the organisation/team, highlighting fair treatment and using listening skills, are able to create strong relationships (Northouse, 2016, pp. 225-226,239) enhancing chances of project success.

Servant Leadership in IT/Software

In the software/IT industry, Agile/Scrum methodologies are widely used in Project Management. Both highlight the benefits/value of servant leadership, promoting its use by Project Managers. Servant leadership empowers use of agile, helping teams understand the purpose and process of the work, which should focus on results, not the steps involved; this delivers value and project success (PMI, 2017b, p. 33). Allowing individuals to self-manage/self-organise supports efficiency, while servant leadership facilitates successful work with individuals at all levels (PMI, 2017b, p. 36). Using it enables creation of an environment which allows the team to successfully deliver the project (SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 151); focusing on the team, rather than on the result or the power achieves better results (SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 310).

Project Managers' Behaviour

PMI identifies that Project Managers should support diversity, be inclusive, demonstrate servant leadership, and demonstrate inspiring, motivating, and influencing behaviours (PMI, 2019). Servant leaders should share authority/power (SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 310), use active listening/be receptive (SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 62), and demonstrate empathic behaviour (Northouse, 2016, p. 227). Caring about team members, using persuasion, not force, and foresight are all critical behaviours the Project Manager needs (Northouse, 2016, p. 228; SCRUMstudy™, 2013, p. 62). Highlighting team members' intelligence and enabling them to be energetic, in addition to the above mentioned behaviours, allows Project Managers to be successful (PMI, 2017b, p. 34).

Benefits of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership theory is the only theory promoting selflessness/concern for others, emphasizing shared power and control; servant leaders achieve results through influence and behaviour, in contrast to traditional leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 240). By ensuring Project Managers improve their skills, servant leadership enables them to be more agile in the work place, thus collaborating successfully to deliver value more quickly (PMI, 2017b, p. 34). Servant leaders remove obstacles that prevent their teams working, facilitating collaborations, coaching, and enabling decision making by the right people (PMI, 2017b, p. 35). Importantly, in contrast to other theories of leadership, servant leadership can be learned since it is a behaviour, not a trait (Northouse, 2016, p. 226).

Limitations of Servant Leadership

While some object to the name (Northouse, 2016, p. 241), a major criticism of servant leadership is the claimed lack of consensus on exact attributes, limiting scholarly study (Northouse, 2016, p. 241). Some feel that focusing on others leaves servant leaders unable to consider goals, visions, and delivery (Northouse, 2016, p. 241). For Project Managers the major challenge is that context, organisational culture, the Project Manager's skills/attributes, can all affect success (Northouse, 2016, p. 238). Problems arise if team members are unwilling/unable to accept Servant leadership (Northouse, 2016, p. 239).


Through considering the team/followers, Servant leadership can be used by Project Managers to deliver success. As it can be learned and applied by individuals at all levels (Northouse, 2016, pp. 241-242), it is more suitable for Project Managers than other theories, which suggest leaders must have specific innate attributes. Since research demonstrates that successful projects require strong team communication/collaboration/cohesiveness (Yang, et al., 2011, p. 265), Project Managers must look for a leadership theory enabling them to promote this. Servant Leadership does so.

However, it is important to remember that projects are temporary and involve uncertainties, therefore, one size does not fit all: Project Managers must be aware of a number of Leadership Theories, and must develop their abilities to identify and employ the best leadership style for the project or circumstances. The project type, sector, situation, and lifecycle will all affect the leadership style, which is most appropriate to use.


Dierendonck, D. v. & Patterson, K., 2010. Servant Leadership: Developments in Theory and Research. 1st ed. England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Müller, R. & Turner, R., 2010. Leadership competency profiles of successful project managers. International Journal of Project Management, 28(1), p. 437–448.

Northouse, P., 2016. Leadership: theory and practice. 7th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

PMI, 2017a. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI, 2017b. Agile Practice Guide. 1st ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

PMI, 2019. Project Management Professional (PMP)® Examination Content Outline, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

SCRUMstudy™, 2013. A Guide to the Scrum Body of Knowledge (SBOK™ Guide). 2013 ed. US: SCRUMstudy™, a brand of VMEdu, Inc.

Turner, J. R. & Müller, R., 2005. The Project Manager’s Leadership Style as a Success Factor on Projects: A Literature Review. Project Management Journal, JUNE, 36(1), pp. 49-61.

Yang, L.-R., Huang, C.-F. & Kun-Shan, 2011. The association among project manager's leadership style, teamwork and project success. International Journal of Project Management, 29(1), p. 258–267.