The Five Truths of Project Leadership
Leadership is one of those words that we come across that has a multitude of meanings. Does it mean to give direction? Does it mean to set a vision and motivate others? Or, does it mean what it meant to Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”? How about it means all of these, and much, much more when it comes to project leadership.
I’ve had the great fortune to be in leadership positions right from the start of my project management career. Leading infrastructure projects in the military afforded me the luxury of learning leadership through the best teachers of all – experience and mistake. Two decades of applied leadership in projects and programs has taught me five project leadership truths.
Five Project Leadership Truths
There are a multitude of ways to impart better project leadership, even if the title “project manager” isn’t hanging outside your cubicle. Here are the five project leadership truths I’ve picked up through experience and observation:
1. Lead informally
Leadership is never tied to a position on the organizational chart or a title in the project team. The minute you believe this to be the case, you’ve abdicated your responsibility as a project professional. In project teams, it’s absolutely essential that you be an active, vocal member participating in the give-and-take that defines the planning and execution of any project. I learned through mistake that to not speak up and assert my thoughts can result in wasted resources.
As a project leader, I look for project team members to be actively involved in discussions. The reason is simple – someone may have the input that will be the best course of action in a situation or may be the risk mitigation strategy that’s needed to keep a project on vector.
You can encourage informal leadership in your project teams by setting Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the behavior of the team members. These might include:
- Attack assumptions and facts, not people.
- Everyone will have a chance to speak.
- There are stupid questions – the one’s not asked.
If you’re a project team member and not the manager, you may not be able to set ROE. In this case, you need to be more refined in how you insert yourself into the dialog. You also need to be prepared by doing your research and staff work.
Project leadership requires one to be prepared, as much as it is about setting vision and direction. If you want to be an informal leader, show up to meetings more prepared than anyone else then follow these golden rules of informal project leadership:
- Be courteous and respectful.
- Attack assumptions and facts, not people.
- Don’t use hyperbole or make statements you can’t back with staff work.
2. Observe, learn, then make changes.
If you’re in a project manager role, or in a position to make changes to a project team’s composition or structure, you wield a massive amount of power. In your hands, you hold the power to derail a project, alienate a project team, and upend a client’s desired benefits. You also hold the power to make project planning and execution more efficient, forge a united project team, and deliver exceptional benefits to the client.
One of the quickest ways to alienate people and derail a project for a project manager is to make changes to process and team structure without first observing and learning about the current state. In my mind, this is project leadership rule #1. I’ve been on the receiving end of many a manager who, upon assuming the mantle of leadership, began changing processes, shifting people around into new positions and essentially upending business-as-usual to make it completely unusual business!
From these bad experiences, I adopted a more refined way to adjust the project environment: observe and learn.
If you do not observe and learn about the way a project is being managed, it’s truly impossible to make changes without having a better than even chance that the outcome will be what you desire.
Remember, there’s one project resource that can actively work to derail your best plans – project team members. Materials, equipment, and time cannot. If you forget that other humans have a vote in how processes are applied and project hierarchies are established, you will face a very challenging time of enacting your changes.
To enhance your ability in shaping the project environment and team, observe and learn before you change things.
3. Be flexible, but rigid.
Leadership is about setting direction, providing objectives, and motivating others to do something because, as Eisenhower says, “he wants to do it”. Leadership isn’t about control. Quite the contrary, leadership is about flexibility – letting others lead and make mistakes, learn, and develop their capacity to manage and lead.
It’s easy for a key tenant of management – control – to creep in and take over one’s leadership style. Because you’re focused on controlling the schedule, cost, and quality, it’s an easy leap to controlling your team through micro-management. You might be able to get away with this on simple projects, however, the more complex they become, the less success you’ll have controlling the team and still being effective in managing the project.
This is where leadership has to take over. Through project leadership you set a vision and objectives (controls), then you let delegated project team members move out. You give them the responsibility (control) to do what they need to do to meet the objectives and vision (control) you’ve set. Your control is the vision and objectives you establish. Your flexibility is letting the other person sort out how to achieve the vision and objectives.
Not everything on a project requires hands-on control. This is a vitally important lesson for all project managers to learn if they want to move to increasing complex projects or major programs. Set the vision, let others achieve it.
4. Leadership on the project starts right where you’re standing.
Project managers have leadership gravitas simply because of their position title. If you’re a young project team member, you may believe that because you’re a back-bencher you aren’t in a leadership position.
And, you’d be wrong thinking this.
Leadership isn’t a position and it isn’t something that comes only with age. It starts right where you are standing today. Leadership is a set of skills, but it’s also a mindset. If you don’t believe you’re a leader, then you’re right. If you do believe you’re a leader, then you’re also right. Which belief do you hold?
In your next project meeting hold the mindset of the leader. Arrive better prepared than you’ve ever been. Challenge yourself to bring facts to the discussion, to respectfully engage in constructive dialog and to build collaboration.
The old cliché is, “if you build it they will come.” It’s old because it’s true. If you act as a leader you will behave as a leader and others will follow your lead.
5. Leadership is a team effort.
No one involved in project delivery does so alone. We are all members of a team, regardless of the number of stakeholders involved. Your project team may be two people, or it might involve thousands. Whatever the number, the basic truth is the same – leadership is a team effort.
You cannot effectively lead a team without following someone else effectively. This holds true whether you’re a new professional just joining the project team, or the CEO who’s been at it for decades. Each of us follows someone else’s direction.
To harness the benefits of informal project leadership, project managers must be willing to let others take the helm and step back when the situation calls for it. At the same time, project members must be willing to be leaders — to step up when the situation dictates.