There are plenty of leadership opportunities in the project management world. The work of leading a project requires a lot more listening and documenting than talking, which makes it a field where quieter, more introverted leaders can shine. There can be multiple leaders on any given project team. Each can exercise different skills to move the project forward. The key challenge is to align leadership personalities with your project needs.
People have different innate leadership qualities. There are great listeners, decision makers, and visionaries. And others who are naturally more persuasive or good at getting things done.
We need to find a way to appreciate the skills in these people for the value they add. We need to direct people into the appropriate positions, and communicate with them to minimize the risk that their leadership skills become divisive. A ship can only have one captain. But, that doesn’t mean that everyone on that ship cannot exercise some form of leadership at the appropriate time.
Experts debate whether leadership can be taught or whether you are born with it. People who are highly motivational seem to be born that way. And, highly motivational people seem to be natural leaders. In project management, that may not be the best person for the project manager spot. Those charismatic, extroverted, inspirational, and motivational leaders are sometimes terrible at organization or detail work. And project management – by anyone’s definition, requires organization and an attention to detail.
How is project leadership different? Simply put, projects can be completed very effectively by teams of leaders, all leading in different, but compatible ways. The best project sponsors and project managers encourage this leadership. So, highly functioning project teams have a different chemistry than a small company where there is a boss, and everyone follows the boss, hoping that he/she quickly develops better leadership skills.
So, what are some of the different kinds of natural leaders that we find in project work, and how can they best be utilized effectively?
The Pied Piper
The pied piper is the seemingly extroverted individual who seems to naturally have a line of people who are following. They are often lively, smiling, fun people. Pied pipers have no idea why people follow them and often do not seek out this role. They are just naturals.
Life on your project will be great when your pied pipers are intelligent, and happily performing a strong function. When one of your pied pipers becomes dissatisfied with the direction that the project is taking, the pied piper can quickly lead others into a place of tension and destruction.
The Inspirational Motivator
The inspirational motivators can fall into several different camps, depending on the level of extroversion or introversion. More introverted leaders can inspire through great ideas or communication skills. They often seem to listen well. Some well-known sports coaches often appear to be extroverted inspirational motivators. We can watch them shouting at their teams from the sidelines. The good ones know when to stop talking and listen.
To reinvent project management for the business world, we can look at the strong coaches and take some lessons on how to motivate teams. They seem to be breaking all of the rules. They yell and scream, and don’t seem to empower teams to chart their own course. But the good ones love their teams and seem to find a way to build up that love amongst the team. Great players regularly pass the ball to others and sacrifice their own need for achievement.
So, how can project managers adopt a coaching spirit that also empowers a team? By allowing teams to self-manage and not getting in the way, a strong project manager can build a team of leaders who all enjoy working with one another. The project manager can serve as a sounding board, reflecting what he/she sees and hears back to the team – and then, allowing the team to process that feedback and find their own way through the chaos.
The Detail Documenter
There are some people who just always seem to be writing down details, thinking about something that everyone else has forgotten, planning ahead without knowing it, or making lists. These people can make excellent project managers, provided they have sufficient social skills to lead a team.
A sous-chef approach can be effective when your project manager is a detail documenter. In this approach, the goal is to build a team with a strong project sponsor and utilize other folks on the team as activity leaders, and risk or money managers. Sous-chef types, who are often happy to share the glory and don’t require a lot of hands-on management, can be quite effective. Team members enjoy working with a leader who shares credit for success.
Some people are able to delegate quite effectively, while others are terrified of losing control. It’s even harder in new groups where folks have not yet proven themselves. The best project managers seem to be able to delegate in a way that allows the team to fail, learn, and grow. If you have someone who enjoys control and has a hard time letting others take over, it may be better to use them as an activity leader, rather than a project manager.
People who enjoy controlling things are often highly accountable for results and highly dependable. They may not want to be responsible for someone else’s mistakes. That doesn’t mean they can’t add value to your team. Their high personal expectations, work ethic, and lack of tolerance for their own mistakes can be inspirational to others.
Bosses seem to come in all shapes and sizes. They have varying leadership competencies, unlimited temperaments, and differing needs for personal glory. Finding the perfect boss – that person who folks want to spend half of their waking life under fluorescent lights trying to please – is the elusive dream for many. Salary and benefits help, but many employees leave bosses, not jobs.
Choosing the right project manager and a strong initial team member group can mean the difference between finding the right resources for your project. In these days of increasing anonymity in the work force, project team members are often able to pick the projects on which they work. And guess what? No one wants to work for a jerk. So, when possible avoid selecting jerks to manage projects.
When there is no way around that option, the challenge for the team is to learn how to manage upwards. Transparent systems can be helpful here, though there are some people who reject transparency out of fear. Documenting understandings and progress is essential. If the boss can access that documentation 24/7, the team may find that the boss is less intrusive. Having everyone committed to a clear project vision on a project that is clearly bringing value to the organization is essential. Having a system where “hot button” issues can be flagged helps ensure that the boss is in the loop on the important matters.
Leadership personalities need to be aligned with the specific project roles. Think about what each major activity needs as you select someone to be in charge of those blocks of work. What leadership personality do you need to manage the risks or issues on your project? Who is best suited to ensure that your project doesn’t run over budget? Project work offers different leadership opportunities, so take advantage of that to develop your people. And if you need some help, give me a call.