Project Managers are Leaders

Last time, we talked about how it is important to wear many hats as a Project Manager.  Today, we’re going to talk about the Leadership Hat.

Think about a person that you would follow regardless of where they were going.  What makes them a leader worth following?  Without pulling up a dictionary or wikipedia article on the word ‘leader’, I can tell you that a leader is someone that is followed.  In terms of the business world, a leader doesn’t necessarily make decisions, and a leader doesn’t necessarily have the highest ranking title.  A true leader is someone that has earned the trust and respect of their team; and as a result, that team will follow that person in whatever direction they take.   In my view, good leaders:

via Flickr by Jonas Hansel

Speak honestly about what’s going on.  There are few things worse than a leader that sugar coats the facts.  When things are going well, it’s easy to praise and share accomplishments.  When obstacles come up, it’s much more difficult to speak up.  As a leader, it is important to make sure that your team is aware of what’s going on; what to expect; and what your plan is to get to better days ahead.  If a leader does not acknowledge any issues, they will lose the confidence of the team – and find that they are a follower-less leader.

Respect the team.  Project Managers can find themselves leading people in every level of the management hierarchy.  From entry-level interns to executives, a Project Manager must learn the roles and responsibilities of everyone on their team.  Each and every role  is important, and the Project Manager should treat every team member as such.  Remember, every person has unique skills and talents, and one of a leader’s most important roles is to help cultivate those skills.   Moreover, a leader respects the knowledge of their team members.  When a question is asked in a meeting, a leader should allow the appropriate person to share their expertise, rather than attempting to speak to something that is not their specialty.  If a leader doesn’t allow people to share their knowledge, experience, and expertise; they show that they do not have much faith in them, and may lose the respect of their team in turn.

Are compassionate regarding the well being of their team.  It is difficult to follow someone that clearly does not give any credence to the well being of their team.  Why would you follow someone that didn’t have your interests in mind?  Project Managers have to balance both the customers as well as their own teams to make sure that the customers are getting what they want, and the team is getting what they need.  Leaders must know how walk the fine line between taking too much out of their team to make the customers happy; and losing customers for the sake of the well-being of the team.  It can seem impossible to come to an equilibrium, and the best leaders are the ones who can do it almost seamlessly.

Have a vision, direction, or idea of where to go and/or what to do.  At the beginning of a project, when the Charter is drafted, and the Plan is falling into place, it is easy to follow almost anyone.  The true test is when things start to go wrong, obstacles take over, and success is nowhere in sight.  When this happens, people look to their leader for what to do next.  Many times, the leader can be just as lost as everyone else, but needs to project a sense of confidence that people can lean on in order to keep moving forward.    Simply being the person to say ‘we’ll get past this’ can be the difference between a true leader, and a person who is stuck with nowhere to go as their project spirals out of control.

Solve problems quickly and decisively.    As projects move forward, it can be very easy to get stuck in ‘paralysis of analysis’ when faced with an issue.  With as many variables that can touch a project, it is impossible to always make the right decision; and your decisions can affect the outcome of the project.  However, *not* making a decision can turn out to be just as detrimental.  One of the best quotes I’ve heard is Every decision you make is wrong.  What is important is that you make the decision quickly, and adapt as necessary.  Leaders need to know the difference between decisions that require weeks to think through, and decisions that must be made quickly and decisively.

Stand up for their team.  Nobody is perfect.  People make mistakes.  There will come a time when someone on your team makes a mistake that becomes widely known.  Good leaders don’t allow a single mistake to ruin a person’s career – they ‘stand in front of the bus’, take the beating for the mistake, and work on a solution as required.  Later, they will work with the person that made the mistake to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.  When your team knows that you will defend them, they tend to work harder to not make your defense necessary.

Know when to lead, as well as when to follow.  Yes, leaders must also be followers sometimes.  Leaders take direction from people just like everyone else.  When following a particular direction isn’t easy for the majority of people on a team, the leader of that team needs to know when to stand up, get in line, and keep the team going.  Insisting on being the person in charge, no matter what, can turn out to be detrimental to the overall success of a project.  Being a dynamic leader that knows when to lead, as well as when to follow may turn out to be the difference between project success and failure.

Leadership is difficult, and it is not something that can be forced.  Some people are natural leaders that make it look easy.  Others need to practice, learn from their mistakes, and keep moving forward.  If you are going to take on the mantle of Project Manager, you need to be prepared to be a Leader, and continue to help yourself and your team grow as you go.



1 thought on “Project Managers are Leaders”

  1. Abby, brilliant theme and a critical issue. Project Managers along with others such as Product Managers are a powerful and growing class of “integrator” leaders, wielding huge responsibility for organizational success or failure.

    The best Project Managers I’ve worked around recognized their role as leaders (with accountability but not direct authority), and they have worked hard to cultivate those squishy but critical “soft skills” requisite for success in leading others.

    I counsel Project Managers on the development of these abilities in my graduate school teaching here in Chicago (and via my services), and I constantly counsel senior leaders to recognize the power and potential of this group…and to invest in their development. Sadly, to many senior leaders, the PM role is viewed as one of administration. That view is changing, but not fast enough!

    My e-book (pdf, free): Leadership and the Project Manager-Developing the Skills that Fuel High Performance has been downloaded over 10,000 times, and may serve as a good resource for those in the community looking for encouragement, ideas and support.

    Thanks for your great post!

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