Project leadership, beyond popularity

Stephen Burnell
July 25, 2011

In this article we explore the behaviours that make a superior project leader, and discuss the impact that superior or ineffective behaviour can have on your project teams and project outcomes.

In three articles we have introduced the concept that project management excellence requires much more than certification and tenure. Behaviour is a key driver and it is possible to make tangible links between superior behavioural capability and improved project outcomes.

We have discussed the significant risk of perceiving behavioural assessment and development to be ‘discretionary’, and highlighted the importance of using subject matter experts to measure and lift your project managers’ behavioural capability.

Here we look at how, as a project leader, different levels of behavioural competency can impact the effectiveness of your project teams, in particular:

  • Team Leadership: The ability to inspire and productively lead project teams to achieve high quality outcomes.
  • Communication: The ability to communicate with key stakeholders, clients and project teams in a clear and compelling manner.
  • Impact and credibility: Demonstration of a credibility and professionalism that builds the confidence of key stakeholders and project team members.

Fall on your sword, or stand and fight?

When Paul Stephenson resigned from his post as UK Police Commissioner over the recent News of the World phone hacking scandal, he stated that he made the “difficult and personally painful” decision to quit because he was a leader.

“Leadership is not about popularity, the press or spinning, it’s about making decisions that put your organisation, its mission and the people you lead first. It’s about doing things that will allow them to be proud of their leaders and this is much different than mere popularity,” he said.

Meanwhile, in response to questioning by the parliamentary committee, head of News of the World parent company, News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch described it as “the most humble day of my life”.

His humility was short-lived. “I feel that people I trusted—I don’t know who, on what level—have let me down, and I think they have behaved disgracefully, and it’s for them to pay,” he said. “And I think, frankly, that I’m the best person to see it through.”

So who is displaying superior leadership behaviour in this situation? One has fallen on his sword, and the other is vowing to stay and fight. Firstly we need to make the distinction between decisions made and leadership behaviour.

Decisions are the choices made based on what is believed to be right for our organisation or project, and take into consideration company culture, commercial impact and other environmental factors.

Stephenson believed he had to resign to send a clear zero-tolerance message about corruption to all members of the force. Law enforcement agencies pride themselves on their integrity, and moral fibre. They should be untouchable.

On the other hand, Rupert Murdoch leads an organisation that is driven by shareholders, most of whom know what tabloid journalism stands for and have a primary interest in selling more papers to increase their dividends. As CEO of News Corporation, Murdoch has a responsibility to those investors, and his resignation could send the share price into a spin; even further than the $6 billion loss in market capitalisation value since the scandal broke).

Leadership behaviour, on the other hand, is the way in which we make, communicate and implement those decisions.

Stephenson and Murdoch both acted quickly and decisively, and demonstrated an air of professionalism, credibility and authority. They were clear, articulate and compelling in the delivery of their vision and used language appropriate to their stakeholders—the British public, and News Corp shareholders respectively—and their teams, the police force, and the News Corp executives respectively.

Author avatar
Stephen Burnell
Stephen Burnell is the managing director of Touchstone Projects, a project management capability consulting company that integrates behavioural science with established project methodology to create a suite of tools to lift project delivery capability. He has international experience in talent management, and has consulted to some of Australia's leading organisations on their approach to the assessment, selection and development of their people.
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