The Five Truths of Project Leadership

February 1, 2018 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMPChristian Knutson, P.E., PMP

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.

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:

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:

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:

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!

[Further Reading: How to Lead Multiple Projects and Teams]

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.

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...

(RSS generated with FetchRss)

Previous Article
Ask a Project Manager: How Do I Raise My Team’s Morale?
Ask a Project Manager: How Do I Raise My Team’s Morale?

“Dear Elizabeth: I’m managing a small team of technical professionals and, not to put too fine a point o...

Next Article
Super Bowl vs World Series: A Project Manager’s Point of View
Super Bowl vs World Series: A Project Manager’s Point of View

The great George Carlin did a classic routine about the differences between baseball and football that show...