Understanding Leadership

If management is doing the right thing, then leadership is doing things right.

You don’t have to be in charge to be a leader. You can demonstrate leadership skills at any level, from project coordinator to project director.

Leadership is:

  • setting a vision for the project with clear goals
  • communicating the vision and goals
  • enabling and motivating the team to achieve the vision and goals
  • evaluating progress and providing feedback as required
  • listening to and acting on feedback provided to you; and
  • removing roadblocks and making it easy for other people to do their jobs.

Making leadership work for you

Being a leader involves maintaining an attitude that is open, honest, trustworthy, and demonstrates integrity. ‘Doing’ leadership, however, is not something that can be codified easily. You’ll find yourself adapting your behaviors to suit different situations.

There are dozens of books written about leadership but it’s virtually impossible to put what it means to you down into meaningful words. I don’t know your personal style and I can’t tell you what’s going to work best for you.

As frustrating as it sounds, being a good leader is just as much about trying things out and getting them wrong as it is about stepping up and getting them right. You’ll learn a lot about your personal approach to leadership as you lead (from above or below).

Leadership is truly a very practical skill.

In addition to needing to adapt ‘leadership’ to suit your personal style, you’ll also have to adapt to different situations. What works day-to-day is not necessarily going to work during a crisis.

During day-to-day project leadership you can be more hands-off. The team can have the latitude to do what needs to be done. You are steering the ship, but the crew know the course and are willing and able to help you get there. This does work at any level: even in entry-level jobs you can still make a difference through your attitude.

Leading in a crisis

In a crisis, project leadership needs to be more directional. The team may not be willing to do what is required to put the project back on track, or they may not have the skills to do so. They will be looking to you for direction and support. You’ll need a more hands-on approach, reviewing every aspect of the project to find out where the project is not aligned – and then putting it right.

If you think that sounds more like the job of management, you would be right. Project recovery exercises involve leadership, but they are also very much concerned with management tasks. After all, leadership isn’t something you can simply switch on when you feel like being a ‘leader’. Leadership has to be part of how you do your management tasks.

Carrying out the management of projects without that work being aligned to your leadership behaviors (being honest, trustworthy, and so on – whatever values you assign to leadership in your situation) means that the project team will soon realize the lack of connection between the way you present the overall vision and the way in which you execute it.

You can’t expect them to give you accurate estimates if they see that you aren’t honest in your presentation of estimates to the senior executives. The management tasks – building plans, running meetings, handling change, and so on – have to be executed with the same values-based approach.

There is an overlap between management and leadership, and you should aim to develop a leadership attitude and set of behaviors that runs through both activities. It’s the only way to manage and lead consistently and to build a successful professional reputation for getting things done, and getting them done right.

A version of this article first appeared on the BCS website.

Want to keep reading? Have a look at The Ultimate Guide to Leadership in Project Management.