project leadership

Being a leader can be considered both a position of power and vulnerability. You are in both a role of influence and one with high visibility. All the while, the effect you have on teams and individuals is meaningful. That’s why it matters to do your job effectively. After all, team leaders are often a big reason why many of us either stay at a job or leave.

But how do you know—really know—what your leadership style is, and if you’re doing a good job? It isn’t easy job to observe yourself objectively. Which is why it’s so hard to know what, exactly, your leadership style is and how you come across to others. Over time, it becomes slightly easier to connect the dots, as your self-awareness increases and as you gain more feedback from managers, your environment and the team members and other people you interact with.

My own leadership self-awareness has increased dramatically since 2008 when I started my coaching and leadership studies. Before that time, I was running a large team and was under a lot of pressure to move the project forward. I felt that my leadership style was democratic but a colleague politely pointed out that although I did elicit other people’s opinions, I would always default to making the decisions on my own. I know that his observation was correct and that I probably didn’t share decision-making because I felt it was my responsibility as the project manager.

Shortly after the workshop where this comment was made, I began my coaching studies. As a result of the intense studies of human behavior and peak performance, I became more inclusive and collaborative in my approach. I also became a better listener. All I wanted was to empower others. In time, I became almost ashamed of my previous management style.

In hindsight, however, I can see that although I probably was too directive and controlling in my earlier career, it’s also true that I later moved too much in the other direction. I became overly soft and understanding as I adopted more of a laissez-faire approach in the hope that it would empower the team.

The two faces of leadership
Truth be told, leadership has two contrasting faces that can be hard to combine. If we want high performance, however, and we want to develop our team members in the process, we have to integrate them both.

So what are these two faces of leadership? Challenging and supportive leaders. Let’s have a look at each one:

Challenging leaders
On one side you have the challenging and demanding leader who is excellent at setting the standard and telling people what is expected of them. These bosses can be very stressful to work for. They aren’t interested in understanding your situation or what support you need. And because these types of leaders are efficiency-driven, they demand that targets are met and that goals are achieved – and sometimes with little regard for the people involved in doing the work. It’s stressful! Maybe you’ve even worked for someone like that.

Supportive leaders
On the other side, you have leaders and managers who are extremely supportive of their teams and very nurturing. They listen to people, they are inclusive and do everything they can to give their teams what they need – be it one-on-one sessions, training courses, attendance at conferences, discussion forums, etc.

For these bosses, it’s the human aspect that matters most. They want people to feel good and be happy with their work. Their philosophy is that if morale is high then results will follow. The problem with this approach – however nice it sounds – is that supportive leaders can struggle to generate high performance, as there can be a tendency not to hold people to account for performance targets. In extreme cases, the supportive approach can lead to complacency.

Can you be a bit of both?

In my experience, project and team leaders have a natural tendency to be either challenging or supportive – but not both at the same time.

Managers who are challenging are naturally more task and efficiency-driven and sometimes struggle to relate to people. Supportive leaders, on the contrary, are instinctively more people-oriented and find it difficult to set demands, as they fear that they may fall out with people and create disharmony.

As mentioned, the best results come when managers and leaders can combine the two styles, even if one of them doesn’t come naturally. Setting clear performance targets and stretching people can be very motivating, and it will generate high performance if the manager is also supportive and able to give team members what they need in order to reach their targets.

How do you combine the two?

In practice, a combination of the two styles can be achieved through a shared leadership model where clear objectives, targets and responsibilities are agreed in collaboration between client, project manager and team members.

When this happens everyone has a stake in the project because they have been actively involved in defining it and planning it. That’s when mutual accountabilities can occur. In this scenario, it is not the project manager who pushes the targets towards the team. Instead, everyone is part of defining what they are going to be held accountable for and what needs to happen in order for them to meet their targets – individual and collectively.

The question remains where you are on the spectrum between being a challenging and supportive project manager, and if you are able to utilize both approaches. Chances are that you will either find it uncomfortable to hold people accountable, or to listen and empathize with people.

But don’t let that deter you. Instead see it as an opportunity to widen your capabilities and to learn a new approach. After all, growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

If you liked this article and would like to master some of the most common project management challenges for team leaders, download our eBook, “How to Solve the Top 9 Project Management Challenges.”

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The Two Styles of Project Leadership: Which One Are You? was last modified: June 12th, 2017 by Susanne Madsen