Across my time in various roles, I have sat through countless personal development sessions and been told about the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’.  The core concept being that management is the orchestration of resources to complete tasks to realise a goal, whereas leadership is more psychological, using motivation and fostering engagement to inspire a team to reach that goal.  None of those courses however gave me any true insights into leadership and how I could not only apply it but most importantly, to succeed with it.  

Project Managers, as the title suggests can struggle with the concept of leadership and it is hard to avoid it being overridden by mechanical project management techniques and processes.  This is largely because many project methodologies and practices seem to confuse leadership with governance or fit leadership into a hierarchical concept (team manager says and team member does).  Agile methodologies have broken many of these open, at least for certain leadership styles, but it remains an area that needs thoughtful consideration when setting up a project.

Like most things, leadership has to evolve as the sum of our experiences whether that be modelled on the many examples of great leadership or simply by doing.   For me, it was a combination of both and like most great things, is as much about the failures as much as the success stories.

At the end of the day, a failure can be the beginning of a future success even if that success is not my own so I am happy to share some of the signs I have experienced that leadership might be failing and what you can do about it.

Where to begin

Let’s start with some basic HR job design principles (HR professionals please allow me some leeway here).  A Project Manager is hopefully a well defined role in your organisation (if it is not - make it happen!) and will therefore have a job or position description which defines the role.  It should have role requirements which help manage talent and performance processes but, in most organisations will likely have the word ‘leadership’ in it simply because the Project Manager will also be a Line Manager.  Start by defining exactly what leadership means for the role and what it means so you can quantify it and measure (or at least assess) it ongoing.  Remember that Project Leadership is more about inspiring others to take action than driving action directly.

Project leadership should be required to establish the vision for the project (different but linked to the corporate vision).  It is then all about the ability to inspire a persistent and sustainable driving force within individuals and in the team to achieve that vision.  Achieving this can come in a variety of leadership styles which can often be based on a personality or experience.

If you don’t have a vision, before you worry about leadership failure, ask what it is you are leading in the first place. Without a vision, you have no rallying point for a project team or as Zig Ziglar put it (far more succinctly)  “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time”.

Zig Ziglar quotes: If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time.

Once the vision is established, leadership should continually guide the project team to realising it and should come from above ('management'), peers and subordinates.  The question you need to answer for yourself is what type of leader are you?  There are numerous leadership styles and ways to manage people (as opposed to tasks) and, at least for me, you usually have a subconscious leadership setting based on personality and experience.  For Project Managers, that setting is often an autocratic or micro-management style or for others it can be a “laissez faire” style or the ‘Servant Leader”.  There is an art to adapting which style will work for you and unfortunately, you may not know that your chosen style is working until things start going wrong.

Signs your leadership might be failing

Meeting Madness

Most corporate working environments pay 7.6 hours per day in salary making 38 hours a week or 76 hours a fortnight.  This usually is an 8 hour day minus some personal time for breaks etc. however no one (that I know of) can work every available minute in that 7.6 hours so if you are basing your productivity assumptions on this number you are set up to fail.  A motivated employee will more often than not be productive and working because they want to, not because they are told to or need to hit their time quota.

Project leadership is about partly instilling effective collaboration processes that the team will perpetuate ongoing via rapid touch points within tasks.  Done well, it should require no hands on action or oversight from a leader but done badly, collaboration will not be rapid and is often seen in the form of lengthy meetings, draining hours and hours from a working day.

Good project leadership is also about inspiration and innovation and these things don’t happen when sitting in meetings all day, especially in a virtual working environment which was the norm in 2020.  If you do have a number of online meetings in your day it is also likely you will also have a huge number of meeting attendees resulting in mass inefficiencies, cost and the ‘too many cooks’ problem.

As a Project leader, look at the number of Meetings in your week (those you run plus those your team are running) and do a basic exercise where you calculate the % of time in meetings.  Start looking at every activity dependent on a meeting and work to shift the balance back to real time collaboration and use tools such as Jira, Slack, Teams or other collaboration tools to replace the scheduled meeting.

Where did everybody go

Leadership feels pretty good when everything is working but you’ll know when it is failing when all of a sudden you’re on your own, out on a limb and about to take a fall.  Project leadership is just as much about influencing higher ups such as Sponsors, Executives or even Boards.  Where that is done well, these stakeholders should be ever-present, asking questions and participating, taking just as much risk as the Project Manager if not more.  

At a team level, effective leadership should always unite the team and you would see team members go above and beyond to achieve the project goals.  The team should be self-managed and consistently setting stretch targets to benefit not just the project but individuals (including yourself of course).  As soon as the organisation is leaving those same individuals (including yourself) hanging to face risks, issues or fallout when things don’t go to plan, your team is fractured and your leadership is failing.

To address these issues, drive accountability and commitment across your own leadership and try not to let them forget their own responsibilities to you and your team (easier said than done with some Executives).  At a team level, focus on collaboration and avoid conflict in the team where possible.  A framework like Objectives and Key Results is a great way to help align the team and celebrate successes more frequently to keep the fires of inspiration burning instead of your team foundations.

I didn't realise I sounded like that

You know the first time you hear your recorded voice played back to you and it sounds tinny and weird?  How about when you hear something you said repeated back to you after it has been repeated multiple times by multiple people?  I can tell you it will not just sound weird but be changed to the point you can’t recognise your own words or their meaning anymore.

As I’ve mentioned, Project leadership should establish persistent and repeatable actions and behaviours which are driven by the team themselves without constantly requiring your attention.  Where leadership fails, name-dropping occurs as a proxy to having a leader physically there to direct an activity.  When a team member says “Sean said he wanted it done this way” (or words to that effect) to another team member or stakeholder to get a result, they are effectively implying there will be a consequence for not following the proxy order.  Threats and consequences (implied or otherwise) have no place in a working environment and (going back to one of my first points in this blog) is just managing a short-sighted outcome, not leadership.

It is a hard one to stop and the difficulty is sometimes such behaviour does get things done however call it out as soon as you see it and try to work out why it happened.  It could be a lack of empowerment across the team or it could be that a process is bad or there is a persistent blocker to a task completion so your team is just trying to blast through it however they can.

Managing leadership failure

I most definitely can't give you the silver bullet to good leadership as I am still learning and, on occasion, failing where I try something new.  What I can tell you is that honest reflection and constantly asking for feedback is key.  Open yourself up to different ways to be a great leader and, if you are fortunate enough to work for (or with) someone you identify as one, seek them out as a mentor and use their feedback to grow.  Most importantly ask your team and look for leadership qualities in your people you can foster and develop to drive your team performance.  

Should you experience failure, learn from it, use it, dust yourself off and get back to work with lessons learned.  Ultimately good team leadership will only be as good as your self-leadership and resilience and make sure you give yourself a break every now and again.  If you are reading about leadership and trying to be a better leader, I’d suggest you're doing just fine.