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The Qualities of Good Leadership

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The Qualities of Good Leadership

Our concept of leadership has evolved over the years. The term was once confused with management, but today the two are distinct roles, each with its own characteristics. Rather than debate a definition of leadership, it is advantageous to discuss what leaders do. That way, you can come around to a better, fuller understanding of the concept.



What Leaders Do

It is increasingly clear that leaders do more than plan, organize, control, coordinate, and budget. While such activities are important and must be done, project leadership goes beyond those functions. In other words, leadership involves more than being logical, analytical, and sequential—that is, it’s more than simply applying the mental thought processes originating in the left side of the brain.

Leadership takes on a holistic perspective by including the “people side” in project management, and it embraces the future rather than preserves the status quo. Thus, leadership is dynamic rather than static. It involves looking at the present and determining the steps to move on to some desired future state (e.g., a vision buttressed with meaningful goals that serve as guideposts). Leadership, not surprisingly, requires being results-oriented. By developing a vision and goals, the project leader gives the team a sense of purpose. The leader also helps align people and other resources to focus on achieving results, thereby increasing project efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, the emphasis is on what and why rather than how. At all times, judgments are based on the big picture, which is the vision.

Leadership embraces change. It requires constantly asking, “What are we doing? Is that the only way to do it? Can we do it better?” Questioning the status quo is characteristic of leadership. It requires viewing a constantly changing environment while pursuing the vision. This emphasis on change therefore requires a willingness to adopt new processes, procedures, and roles if they will more efficiently and effectively help attain the vision. Flexibility and adaptability are two characteristics of good leadership.

Leadership means the ability to motivate. Contemporary leadership theories and practices emphasize the people side. Leadership entails active listening techniques in conflict management, “reading” people to understand their messages and motives, negotiating through open communication, and “thinking outside the box,” all in an effort to attain the vision.

From a motivational perspective, leadership is getting people to perform enthusiastically, confidently, and in a highly committed way. It implies delegating, empowering, coaching, building trust, handling diversity (people from different cultures and disciplines), laying the groundwork for creativity, and facilitating performance. Leadership involves communicating. Communication is not just giving effective presentations; it is also listening to the “want to hears” and the “need to hears.” It requires communicating laterally and vertically in a manner that is open and engenders trust. It means being open and honest at all times—that is, creating an atmosphere of trust, where hidden agendas and dishonesty have no place. All decisions and behaviors are of the highest ethical standards, to ensure credibility and trustworthiness up, down, and across the chain of command.

Leadership requires a constancy of purpose. It means keeping the vision in the forefront of everyone’s mind by continually asking the question, “How will this help to achieve the vision?” That translates to being results-oriented and aligning responses and processes in a focused, disciplined manner.

Here, too, leadership involves a willingness to take smart, calculated risks. Leaders look for better ways not only to conduct business but also to take action. They embrace ambiguity and complexity in a manner that fosters innovative ideas and solutions to achieve the vision. They build cohesive teams that have synergy. Team members share information and other resources in a way that encourages cross-functional participation. Leaders build an atmosphere of trust and mutual support, emphasizing relational rather than hierarchical interactions and directing team energy toward achieving the vision. Thus, leadership means facilitating rather than impeding performance. Leaders help people do their jobs in a positive, not negative, way. They remove obstacles to performance, not create them. They secure the resources. However, they do more. They can maneuver through the “halls of power,” network with key players, and interact with the customer to ensure satisfaction of all requirements and specifications. In addition, they can be political if it furthers the interests of the project.

Finally, leaders put the customer first. They strive to understand everything about the customer—for example, needs, tastes, and relevant market conditions. The customer is king and drives the vision; without that focus on the vision, the project becomes quixotic.

When Leadership Falters or Is Missing

Leadership encourages greater productivity. An experienced team member or project manager only has to work once on a project to understand the difference between a project with leadership and one without it. But being a project manager has never been harder. The days of managing the team with “thou shalts,” with the support of a clearly designed organizational structure and rational, logical discipline, are over. Good project managers know the value of exercising effective leadership throughout the project cycle. They know that the leader must inspire the team to accomplish goals and objectives at a level that meets, even exceeds, expectations.



That is not as simple as it sounds. The people to be inspired are not just the ones working directly on the project. They are also the ones whom the leader reports to (e.g., customer and senior management) and those who support the project for a short period of time (e.g., contract employees and consultants). With all these players, in a constantly changing environment, effective leadership is critical.

Although leadership is important for a project, it rarely is seen on some projects. The reasons for this are many, and are worth noting.

1. There is a tendency to select people solely for their technical expertise. While expertise is important, it is a mistake to assume that expertise is equivalent to leadership. Leadership goes beyond technical prowess, increasingly recognized as subordinate to other qualities. Often, a person selected for his or her technical expertise relies on that quality at the expense of the project.

2. There is a failure to distinguish between project leadership and project management. Project management deals with the mechanics of managing a project, such as building a schedule; project leadership deals with much bigger issues—for example, ensuring that people focus on the vision. (See box on page 25.)

3. There is a tendency to wear blinders. In a complex, constantly changing environment, many project managers seek security by grabbing on to a small piece rather than looking at the big picture. They may focus, for example, solely on technical issues or on the schedule at the expense of more important areas.

4. There is a tendency to be heroic. That is, they try to do everything themselves and be all things to all people. They eventually start to overcontrol and in the end, as many experienced project managers know, control very little, even themselves. They fail, for example, to delegate.

5. There is a tendency to emphasize hard rather than soft skills. Hard skills are scheduling and statistical analysis; soft skills are active listening and writing. It is not uncommon for project managers of technical projects to disparagingly refer to soft skills as “touchy-feely.” Yet time and again, studies have shown that soft skills can prove as critical, indeed more so, in a project’s success.

6. There is a tendency to select project managers based on the FBI (Friends, Brothers, and In-laws) principle. Senior managers often select people they like or who are like themselves, who may or may not have the attributes of a project leader.

7. There is a tendency by senior management to micromanage a project. They treat the project as a pet, smothering it with attention, thereby killing any initiative by the project manager or the team. An example is requiring any action, even the smallest, to have approval from senior management. Such an oppressive atmosphere makes it impossible to exercise project leadership.

8. There is a failure to recognize that leadership is ongoing. It starts at the beginning and continues throughout the project cycle. Yet especially with long-term projects, managers tend to forget about inspiring people and their leadership assumes a posture of benign neglect.

9. There is a tendency to ignore or not recognize the indicators of poor leadership. These indicators include a high turnover or absenteeism rate among team members, repetitive problems with the quality of output, and constant slippage of major milestone dates. Of course, these indicators may reflect other problems; however, there’s a high correlation between problems in leadership and those in performance.




10. There is a tendency toward window dressing rather than dealing with substantive issues. Window dressing concentrates on images; substantive issues probe the root causes. While looking good has its immediate advantages, too much emphasis on image can have deleterious effects as the underlying problems persist and become more acute.

Project Management vs. Project Leadership

Is there a difference between project management and project leadership?

Project management uses the tools, knowledge, and techniques needed for defining, planning, organizing, controlling, leading, and closing a project. Project leadership appears, therefore, to be a subset of project management. But it would be a mistake to assume that project leadership is secondary to project management. Project leadership is the only function that occurs throughout the project cycle. It is, in many ways, the glue that holds the other functions together. The output from defining, planning, organizing, controlling, and closing a project depends largely on how well project leadership is exhibited. Without solid leadership, performance of the other functions will be marginal at best.

Industries are replete with examples of projects that had well-defined plans and plenty of financial support, yet achieved less than satisfactory results. Project managers must gain and retain the confidence of myriad players, including the project sponsor, client, team, and senior management. Project leadership, then, means going beyond the mechanics of managing a project, such as building a work breakdown structure, constructing schedules, or managing change. It calls for inspiring all players to accomplish the goals and objectives in a manner that meets or exceeds expectations.

Are Leaders Born or Made?

For a long time, people have debated whether leaders were born or made. The issue remains relatively unsettled, although most management experts believe that leaders are made rather than born. Basically, there are three theories of leadership: trait theories, situational contingency theories, and personal behavior theories.

1. Trait theorists say that people contain characteristics that make them leaders. These characteristics could be based on personality, internal motivations, physical features, or a combination of two or more.

2. Situational contingency theorists deal with different leadership styles under varying circumstances. Typical leadership styles are either task or people centered and, depending on the circumstances, one style is preferable to another.

3. Personal behavior theorists deal with views on how leaders perceive people and their role in an organization. Some managers stress the people side while others emphasize the mission.

Regardless of approach, the contemporary viewpoint is that managers in general and project managers in particular stress people rather than task completion. So if you are currently a project manager—or strive to become one—keep the leadership qualities discussed in this chapter foremost in your mind.

It is our hope, of course, that you will avoid these pitfalls and become an effective, successful project leader. Part II begins with the initial steps of project management and concludes with a chapter on closure. The latter discusses how to learn from past mistakes so that future projects will have successful outcomes.








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