CQU Project Management education

Project leadership, beyond popularity

Stephen Burnell
July 25, 2011

They showed strength and character, and made unpopular decisions. If they were your captain you might not necessarily agree with their plotted course. But you can guarantee that your project won’t be left adrift at sea.

One obvious difference is that Stephenson placed the success of the ‘team’, over his own personal interests, whereas Murdoch laid the blame squarely at the feet of one or some of his team members. However, you could argue that, at a broader level, they are both protecting the interests of their organisations just as a superior project manager should remain focused on delivering business benefits at all times.

Poor leadership destroys good projects

Good leadership is a key to effective project management, while poor leadership is one of the main reasons why projects fail to deliver.

A commonly desired project outcome is that IP and knowledge is shared across the project team and that members are primed for future success. But how often does this really happen?

Have you ever worked for a project leader who was so focused on their own role that they forgot about the people that contribute to success?

  • Were you just a ‘resource’ there to perform a ‘task’ and they forgot to care about how the project contributed to your growth and development?
  • Did they give you complex, ambiguous information (probably via an email) but only when you asked for it, and expect you to interpret it, without any input or discussion?
  • Did they fail to delegate and communicate, and then chase outputs without warning?
  • Were they indecisive, defensive and unwilling to make tough calls on behalf of the team?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then I would be very surprised if the project delivered to the expected outcomes. Even if it did, I’m guessing you didn’t celebrate your success as a team, as your leader was probably too busy sharing a bottle of French champagne with the CEO in the boardroom.

And I can guarantee that, unless you had exceptional personal circumstances, you weren’t committed to staying and doing it all for them again? Loyalty would be hard to expect. You might stay and start another project. But invariably you would leave, probably on the eve of a critical milestone, leaving timeframes and budgets to blow out as the business struggles to replace a valuable resource.

And how much impact does methodology have on outcomes above? Definitely some, as you need structure, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. But clearly the behaviours demonstrated have a much greater impact on the end result than process alone.

Putting the team first

One great example of superior leadership is that it is still not known whether Edmund Hilary or Tenzing Norgay, his Nepalese Sherpa, was the first to set foot on the summit of Everest. Hilary could easily have claimed the honour—after all, Norgay was merely a Sherpa—but he declined, saying that it was a team effort and that they reached the peak together.

In the world of sport, successful leaders also tend not to take credit for team success, but will typically be seen at the bottom of every pack, under every high ball, or last on the training track day-in day-out.

Projects—be they climbing mountains, winning world cups, running a police force, or building a media empire—do not succeed without teams. And those teams need leaders with superior behavioural capability.

If you are taking a subjective approach to measuring and developing leadership capability then there is a danger that you will be influenced by the decisions a project manager makes, rather than the behaviours that they display in making them.

Regardless of their decisions (popular or not) superior project managers are decisive and maintain professionalism throughout. They clearly communicate a compelling vision, and fully engage with their teams to understand what drives them, never losing sight of their vision or mission along the way. They delegate with authority, and provide information in a timely, structured and constructive fashion. Above all, they do not expect others to do what they would not do themselves.

Leadership is a key to project success.

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly”—Jim Rohn, business author and speaker

Other articles in this series by Touchstone Projects on measuring and developing your behavioural capability:

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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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