Leadership for Project Managers


In the first half of the 20th century there was a belief that Scientific Management was the new way forward. Scientific Management was the herald of a new era, removing the need for skilled craftsmen, for example on Henry Ford’s production lines, and making the factory owners richer. The principle was simple; reduce complicated tasks to a series of simple tasks, each task being performed by a different person. People were treated as machines and doomed to boring, repetitive tasks. But with social changes and world wars, people decided that they wanted to be treated as such, and not as spare parts for a machine, and they insisted on being given rewarding and interesting work. Many psychologists began experimenting in the area of motivation, and eventually began suggesting that there were benefits to be had from leading people, rather than pushing them and punishing them.

So how do leaders differ from managers?

They say that, a manager “does the thing right”, and a leader “does the right thing”. They also say that, “A leader is born, not made,” but none of these statements have much to do with real leadership. Oh sure, most leaders do the right thing most of the time, but what the “right thing” is, and who gets to decide what the right thing is? And who are “they” anyway and how does one get to become one?

Doing the “right thing” seems quite a simple concept, but consider for a moment that In times of battle some unlucky leaders have had to sacrifice the lives of a few to save many. If you were the husband, wife, parent or child of one of the sacrificed “few”, would you say the leader did “the right thing”? How now if you were a relative of one of the “many” that was saved? Suddenly “right” and “wrong” don’t seem that simple any more.

And saying that leaders are “born not made” is a cop-out. It is true that some people are born with natural leadership abilities, but everyone can improve and develop with training and practice.

I believe a true leader inspires others to greatness, and they do this through their direct influence. They help others achieve what those individuals thought was impossible for them to do. A project manager who is also a leader can encourage a team to perform much better than a group of individuals can.

So in many ways a leader is like a coach, someone who works with you, encourages you and gets the best out of you. It doesn’t mean that a leader will never push you or never move you out of your comfort zone. Often it’s the reverse; athletes for example employ a coach to do precisely that.

Johnny Weissmuller, the star of the early Tarzan movies in the 1930’s and 40’s was a very powerful man. Before he acted Tarzan he was an Olympic swimmer who won five gold medals and three bronze medals in 1924 and 1928, in the 100, 400, and 800-metre freestyle relay. He also won a bronze medal as a member of the U.S. water polo team. Obviously his huge strength gave him a big advantage over his competitors; and yet not so many years later, teenage girls were breaking his records. Obviously they weren’t more powerful than Johnny – the difference was in the technique and the coaching – the leadership, if you like. If you can tap into true leadership you will cause those around you to achieve more than they think they can.

When you study motivational theory, you soon come upon Douglas McGregor’s “Theory X” and “Theory Y”. And what these boil down to is, “You get what you expect from people.” So if we think of everyone as basically selfish then we will always try to manipulate them in order to get what we want. Hey! Doesn’t that make us selfish too?

What does a leader do then? A leader expects the team to perform, and that will be communicated to them by the leader’s actions. A leader encourages, leads by example, cares about the team and gives regular feedback. People need to be recognised and praised. Find a reason to praise your team members privately each week and ensure that no one misses out. But the praise itself should be spontaneous and not formulaic. I believe in encouraging everyone, not praising just for the sake of it, but everyone does something that’s worthy of praise sometimes. Communicate often with your team; give them the “big picture” and where they fit it. This helps give them a sense of team identity, and that is a good step towards integrating them into the team.

A leader influences and inspires others to believe in themselves and to follow the vision of the organisation and the team. This implies strongly that a leader must know, understand and believe the vision themselves! Try to work out what has inspired you in the past, and then you can inspire others, by communicating that passion to them.

Emotions are a powerful motivator, so a leader needs to be passionate to help others “feel” the vision. A leader is not driven by their ego, because if they are, then they will inspire others to follow them, instead of the vision – so a leader is a signpost for where people should go. To be a leader, you must be credible and honest, you have to “walk the talk”, because people tend to do as you do, rather than what you tell them to do.

Whilst leadership is not about ego, a leader still needs to stand out from the crowd – if you’re Mr/Ms Average you’re not going to inspire many people, even if you’re good at your job. Genuineness by definition cannot be faked. A true leader has to be compassionate as well as passionate, so make to effort to develop a relationship with your staff, but with the usual provisos for appropriate relationships of course.

A leader can’t afford to waste time in too much time in the minutiae of the team, in fact a functioning team will solve many of it’s own problems with peer pressure etc. For example, time keeping, dress standards, interpersonal conflict and so on, but remember – peer pressure can be a good servant but a damaging and unforgiving master, so you as leader will need to keep an eye on it. A leader is expected to solve “higher level” problems such as budgetary, emergencies, compliance, need for unique expertise or when the team can’t resolve an issue. But beware of becoming the person to whom everyone brings problems or you will never find time to do your own work.

Your leadership type can and should evolve with the team; following a continuum from autocratic-biased to free-rein-biased styles (analogous to development of the parent-child relationship over time).

Leaders lead by example, but they also know when it is the right time to push. This is most obvious in “take charge” leaders, exemplified by the likes of Churchill, they know what to do in a crisis, and are not afraid to do it, and they can rally people to the cause – because they live the vision. A leader is expected to be a stabilising influence when times are tough, and be able to deal with any cliché that may arise. You need to evaluate your team’s current situation and assess what is needed to progress the team to a future vision. A problem with Churchillian leaders as role models is that they get dumped from office with the crises is over, and this can be true of any single-skilled leader. A true leader needs the ability to change leadership styles to suit the team and the need. They need to be able to handle peacetime as well as war.

So a leader is some of the things that I have described, as well as being a manager in the traditional sense. Often as a project manager and leader you will find yourself doing the “best” thing rather than the “right” thing because you have to do all of the above and still get your project in on time and on budget. Sometimes this means “biting the bullet”, “making the hard decision”, or flogging a dead cliché. But if you follow the leadership path, rather than the strict management path, you are much more likely to earn the respect and loyalty of your team members, customers and other stakeholders along the way, and (I believe) end up with a better project overall.