Project Managers Are the Leaders We Need

in the age of job hopping and quiet quitting, project managers are a source of stability

June 25, 2023 | Helen S. Cooke

leadershipThose of us craving leadership in today’s work culture are having a hard time of it. We hear about “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting.” We see it among our friends and colleagues. We read about it in the news. Is it possible that all of this has something to do with the decline of leadership?

Our work world has fully shifted from a manufacturing culture to an information culture. The resulting changes in how organizations are managed have been huge. The results are evident on many fronts. As we moved into an information culture, multiple layers of management simply disappeared. Interpreting senior executives’ directives to separate divisions was no longer necessary. Specialized employees no longer responded to a “command and control” managerial approach, and team approaches to managing work evolved in many professions. Meanwhile the dissemination of needed information shifted from staff roles and interpersonal interactions to individuals. Each worker is responsible for using appropriate information systems to get what they need to do their jobs, through the ubiquitous available data and applications.

What a typical job consists of has changed as well. High-volume data processing became segmented, then spun off into high tech functionality. Whole areas of functionality were replaced by applications. Those who hold specialty jobs no longer move up in the organization hierarchy; they just move to another organization with more challenge and more pay.

One thing that unfortunately languished in this shift to self-governing teams and self-cultivated expertise is leadership. Yet leadership is still needed and important. There is now a vacuum where workers have a harder time finding the “pride and satisfaction” we all crave in our individual jobs.

In the outdated managerial model of past decades, at least there was a clear path to leadership. Top executive managerial candidates were identified, developed, and tested by rising through the ranks. Now the ranks are slimmer. There are fewer large organizations, and while the large ones may have gotten even bigger, many have spun off separate entities that function autonomously.

Top executives are now recruited from smaller organizations. Executives brought in from elsewhere often spend the first year on the job reorienting themselves to the new corporate environment. As they’re busy realigning their previous experience to a new setting, they have scarce time to lead. They need to learn who their new colleagues are. They need to discern how their new role will affect the future of the organization and its workers. It is hard to engage with followers while your attentions are elsewhere. And more often than not, in today’s rapidly shifting business environment, bringing in a new executive was necessary because existing executives had been unable to create a credible vision.

Here’s where the parallel to project management comes in. The career pattern of today’s top executives mimics the traditional career pattern of project managers: start out in a smaller project, master the job, and move up to a larger and more challenging project, eventually becoming managing director of a large, challenging project, where you use skills learned along the way and are supported by specialized staff.

Leadership is seldom mentioned these days, but its absence is painful. Those at the top who were the source of inspiration, who could engage a worker’s loyalty, are now often brought into their top roles from different companies and cultures. A leader who knows the names and backgrounds of their subordinate staff is rare. Bringing people together to tackle urgent and common problems is physically and environmentally challenging. Workers look after their own welfare. They burn out rather than stepping up to a challenge. They leave completely to restore their morale.

So, who is taking charge of the leadership vacuum? Project managers are.

Project management has always been unique in tackling work from a holistic perspective. The knowledge areas that were once staffed as admin workers for executives have always been expected in every project manager’s tool kit. Whatever the crisis of the day might be, the project manager was expected to reach into the tool kit and get moving on a solution. That capability is more valuable than ever today.

The focus of project managers in the past was to deliver what top management wanted from the project, in exchange for the resourcing and funding of the effort. The focus of projects today is delivering the intended value of the overall project. And if the project manager is right on top of the changes and managing the compromises that must occur for successful delivery, the shift goes from “how” to get it done to “why” it is being done. Whether to achieve a needed outcome, to engage resources for leveraging opportunities of the future, or to avoid threats that might materialize if action is not taken, the guiding vision of the project manager is where and how to deliver value.

That’s pretty much what leadership is, isn’t it? Capture the vision, align it with the sponsor’s mission and their shifting vision of the future, and convey that information to the professional staff on the project in such a way that it inspires pride, professionalism, and thoughtful team cooperation.

So, who is providing the leadership workers need to engage and enjoy their work? We are. Let’s get moving.

  • About The Author
  • 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 Senior Principal at American Management Systems, 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.