Leadership in Project Management Isn’t What You Think

The skills that define leadership often arise organically, not by force

November 9, 2017 | Helen S. Cooke

leadership in project managementWhen it comes to projects, we are often comfortable with identifying ourselves as executives or managers, but few of us describe ourselves as “leaders.” Others may put us into that category, but why are we hesitant to place ourselves under that heading? The answer is that true leaders don’t always stand on a mountaintop and claim credit for being at the front of the parade. Leaders are the ones who discover the path to success and inspire others to follow it. The end result will be a success for everyone involved, and that’s something that speaks for itself.

Years ago, as a federal manager and agency consultant, I was contracted to create a method for assessing who would be the best leader of a major military arsenal. I was expected to then apply that method to recommend a candidate for the arsenal’s top job.

The candidates for this top job were senior managers and executives from various military and civilian agencies (GS-15). My project team and I used a prestige university executive center for our laboratory, and eventually, we devised an assessment center: a simulation of a decision-making body comprised of all the candidates. We agreed that the leader would be the candidate whose ideas were adopted and implemented by his or her peers. We avoided putting success criteria on the individuals or their methods. The results were what counted.

We ran the simulation, and what we found was a surprise to all of us. The candidate who emerged was neither the most vocal nor the most visible among these executive competitors. He was not the tallest, nor the most authoritative in stature. He seldom spoke in large group sessions except to voice the common decision his peers had all agreed upon. His approach was indirect. He led his compatriots one at a time, and one-on-one, to a common conclusion, negotiating the possibilities according to each person’s individual interests, and acknowledging each person’s strengths and contributions to their joint success. As a result of this collaborative method, when the final decision was voiced in a board room setting, there were no arguments or dissents. The assembly of executives from different institutions simply agreed to follow what he had presented publicly.

My group presented him as the candidate for the job, and he was indeed selected to run the military arsenal.

Project Teams Need Leaders

Clearly, projects require leaders. Think about the distinction between direction and leadership. In manufacturing and other businesses with highly repetitive processes, direction works well because there is a distinct “right way” to do the job. Directors can tell employees how to do the job correctly in order to achieve the desired results. In this context, almost everyone has a good idea of what needs to be done. If the “boss” told workers what was supposed to happen and who was responsible, workers helped each other clarify what came next. If a problem arose, it got bucked up to the next higher level and eventually “the answer” came back down the chain of command. This type of direction works best when there is a fairly straightforward “right” way to do it.

Typically, a project is formed when results are not easily achieved using normal operations. Someone may have tried the “right” way already, and it didn’t work. Someone else may have tried another “right” way, and that didn’t work, either. At this juncture, leadership becomes useful. Eventually, someone decides to make a project out of finding the solution. Once a project is created, diverse people from different jobs—even different occupations and work environments—are called together to discover a way to get it done. It takes a lot of discussion and planning, and maybe more than one iteration of the plan. A pretty good understanding of the goal and outcomes is developed. The way to get there is iteratively described, and then re-described, and the true “right” way for the project begins to unfold. The selected path is often chosen because it appears to be more-or-less likely to get the desired result. Since no single person has the answer, the team works collaboratively and gets it done together.

The evolution of this discovery process often produces a leader, and this leader, ideally, is the project manager. The project might evolve into multiple teams, each charged with the creation and completion of parts of the whole. Ensuring that these paths converge is often part of the project manager’s role. It is a role of both leader and manager, seer and prophet. The project manager must be the visionary for the project, helping the team create a clear understanding of where the project will end up.

Periodically, the project manager also assumes the role of product examiner and quality control inspector. Big picture and detail are both parts of the job. By the conclusion of the project, all the parts must come together, and the team and the client need to agree that its goals have been met. What emerges at the end of all that planning and labor is something quite different from what existed before.  Since no one has the “right” answer for something that is completely new, keeping all of those people and teams together, all while evolving the optimal end product, is a major effort! Negotiating the scope, parameters, resources, and budget with upper management is a major effort, too. This is done at the beginning of a project (initiation) as well as at the end (delivering the results).

Leaders use both high-level goals as well as ground-level strategies to create vision and unity of purpose for the team. Leaders interpret how the project will benefit the organization, the client, and the team members themselves. Within project teams, there is often a “director” of the technical effort as well, since there is usually a “right” way to get the work done. This person, often called the “team lead,” may possess complex and sophisticated knowledge of the type of work the team has to do to create each deliverable. This person who knows the right way can often give direction to other members of the team.

A large project may have several technical efforts, each with a team lead who negotiates the ‘right’ answer for that technical subproject. The project manager might have the expertise to be a team lead in an area where he or she has technical knowledge. Not every team lead has the capability to be a project manager. The scope of the project manager’s key leadership role crosses all parts of the project, negotiating solutions with the client and top management as well. The project manager’s leadership creates unity and purpose for the project as a whole.

Leaders Find the Path to Success

A leader’s ability to consider all the possibilities and explore all the options – both by collaborating with others and by personal skill – helps their team members discover the best path to the common goal. Leaders spot trends and identify needs. Leaders find the convergences of paths and methods; they forge a direction that meets both the needs of the organization and the goals of the organization’s top command. Leaders are sophisticated listeners, good at spotting abstract trends and pitfalls, and adept in consolidating diverse views and opinions into a common direction for action. Leaders also have good ideas.

Whether or not you have the sophisticated skills of the top executive, if your ideas are good, you can spot the inevitable direction everyone must take to get to the goal. If you’re able to inspire others to support that direction, you may find – perhaps to your surprise – that you’re at the front of the parade. If you are a leader, you don’t need to put your name on the marquee and claim credit for the result. An ancient Chinese philosopher once said that when a true leader emerges, the people they lead come to believe they did it all themselves. So, step up and lead. Watch who follows. See if your ideas are the ones people adopt. See if the trends you have identified become the ones that lead to the ultimate end goal.

Let others put the title of “leader” on you. Everyone will know, eventually, that you were the one who got it done.

So, I guess that pretty much answers our initial question: why don’t we put the title of “leader” on ourselves? It’s because we don’t have to. True leaders emerge. You don’t need to call yourself a leader;  simply be a leader, and the rest will follow.

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  • About The Author
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  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.