Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers [Book Review]

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“The current project management theory was first defined in the 20th century, when organizations were based on the operational model with only a few projects” writes Michel Dion in his book, Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers. He goes on:

That model was appropriate in the 20th century when the social, business, technological, and cultural environment was still essentially stable. However, this model reads too often as if you can spend two years analyzing something and three years implementing, and then close the project by transferring it to the operations which will do the same thing over and over for the next twenty years. The context is much different today. By the time you are done analyzing, and even more so by the time you are done implementing, the world will likely have changed.”

We have enough books telling us how to use processes. What we need is guidance on how to implement them in the real world, the one with the annoying admin assistant and the hidden agendas. That’s the world I try to manage projects in, not some perfect situation where everyone follows best practice (although Michel’s book does align to the PMBOK®).

This book aims to be that practical guide to the skills you need to operate as a project leader in an imperfect environment. In that respect it is like Jake Holloway et al’s A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders. (Read my interviews with the authors here, here, and here.)

Michel also says:

The danger is to think that all issues relate to tools and techniques, which is a dangerous oversimplification of the problem. This view states that if you fully and correctly implement all the processes, you will have a successful project.”

Because success, when you follow a process, is always guaranteed… Surely no one with any project or leadership experience would still think that people are superfluous in all this.

The 5 leadership qualities you need

You have to wait until Chapter 4 before there is anything meaty on leadership in the book. The early sections are all scene-setting and groundwork. Then you get into the qualities of a leader, which Michel says are:

  • Agility
  • Curiosity
  • Optimism
  • Communication
  • Continuous improvement.

So far so expected, although continuous improvement is a neat addition to this list (I’m a big fan of gathering feedback and using it to improve, as you might know).

Looking after yourself as a leader

One of the things I liked best about this book is that it puts the parts about being only human at the beginning. It talks about wellness as a real theme for leaders and not as an afterthought, tucked away at the end of the book.

Michel bemoans the busyness of our jobs and says that we need to look after ourselves including getting enough sleep (I don’t know any parent of toddlers who manages that but I try).

Michel says leaders should be judged on results and not hours worked and I’d extend that to everyone. Ultimately, your success in the role, he says, is based on your results, decisions, and actions.

Project management is even more important today

Michel comments that as project management is used to manage more things within an organization, and more important things, it is even more important than the link with strategy and leadership is present.

New research on leadership

Chapter 11 presents Michel’s survey results on leadership. Unfortunately, it asked for narrative answers so I can’t summarize for you with statistics.

It does include a list of the most frequently occurring challenges and these are:

  • Stakeholder management
  • Effective meetings
  • Ability to make timely and effective decisions
  • Interaction with senior management
  • Delegation
  • Time management
  • Contract management
  • Understanding politics within an organization.

I expect you recognize some, if not all, of those challenges.

But it’s not really a toolbox

The title of this book is a bit misleading, I felt. ‘Toolbox’ implies actionable steps, checklists, and things – at least to me it does. The book doesn’t give you that.

It’s a good collection of essays on the theme of project leadership, with in-depth coverage and useful insights and there are practical takeaways, but they aren’t called out.

Maybe I’m just lazy and like to skim read. I would have liked to see more summaries, bulleted lists and actions I could do today to improve my skills.

This is one of the better books on project leadership, so it’s a good place to start if you are looking for a comprehensive introduction to the topic.

Read next: My interview with author Michel Dion.

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