Leadership Truths for Project Managers

2014-jan-guest2By Bruce Harpham

Leadership skills have always been important to project managers. However, the Project Management Institute’s changes to the continuing certification requirements program (taking effect in Dec 2015) places an even greater emphasis on leadership development. Given that emphasis, what leadership principles do project managers need to know to be successful?

Fortunately, there are established principles we can all use to become better leaders. In “The Truth About Leadership” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner share timeless leadership principles based on decades of leadership research and training. As an aside, I also appreciated that the authors packed a great deal of value into a business book less than 200 pages long. In this article, I will share a few highlights from the book and how they apply to project managers.

Start With A Foundation of Honesty and Character
“If you don’t believe the messenger, you won’t believe the message.” – Kouzes-Posner First Law of Leadership

Honesty is the top desired trait in leaders according to the authors’ global research program. Simply put, connections, technical knowledge and other traits are secondary. At a tactical level, this law means following through on what you say you will do. This is a basic principle that many of us will already be familiar with. Yet, the steady stream of scandals and disappointments from business and political leaders across the world remind us that many fail to follow this truth.

Application For Project Managers:
Many project managers are working in matrix environments or otherwise lack traditional management authority. This obstacle can be overcome by emphasizing honesty in all your affairs – leadership by commitment to honesty and integrity.

Focusing On The Future Sets Leaders Apart
“Psychologist Martin Seligman has found a dramatic difference between people who react to roadblocks with a sense of futility – pessimists – and those who react with a steely determination to master destiny – optimists. Those who learn to be optimistic about life are far more likely to be successful than pessimists.” – The Truth About Leadership

The future is exciting and full of possibilities – new products, improved service and much more. The most effective leaders regularly spend time thinking about and planning the future. This future emphasis also tends to be make leaders more optimistic and inspirational. A future orientation also helps leaders move their team members away from assigning blame and emphasize solutions.

Application For Project Managers:
In the project management context, the business case and the project charter are excellent resources to paint a picture of the future. Writing and delivering future oriented messages also impacts how others perceive you as the project manager. Rather than seeing you as an administrator or organizer, a steady emphasis on the future and vision will help you to be perceived as a leader.

Set Challenges For The Team
As much as we all enjoy leisure and vacations, such activities are only one dimension of life. Posner and Kouzes asked the following question in their research: “Describe your personal best leadership experience.” Over and over again, respondents emphasized overcoming challenges. Some referred to leaders from history – such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s war leadership. Others emphasized the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult goal at work. There is much to be said for the satisfaction of leading a team to work through challenges.

Application for Project Managers:
Look for ways to provide challenges and “stretch assignments” to people on your team. The opportunity to develop
new skills is often a major draw for project team members. Developing this kind of customized attention and development is also an excellent way to develop your relationship with project team members.

Leaders Go First
Have you ever been in a meeting where nobody wants to provide an answer to a question? The silence can be discouraging and frustrating, especially if you are the person running the meeting! Throughout “The Truth About Leadership”, Kouzes and Barry emphasize that leaders take the risk to act first. My favorite example from book concerns a high school principal.

Robert Kramer, an elementary school principal, was keen to support a reading challenge at his school. “He told the kids that if they read five thousand books over the fall that he would pitch a tent on the roof and spend the weekend up there.” (pg 113). When the students delivered, Kramer followed through on his commitment – a decision that
impressed and inspired his students.

Application for Project Managers:
Look for ways to go first, especially when you are asking your team members to do something new or uncomfortable. For example, you can place the first order on the newly built order fulfillment system. Or you can be the first one to take a new training course.

As you work through the second half of the year, ask yourself how will improve your leadership skills? Putting one of these principles into action is an excellent start.

About Bruce Harpham, PMP
Founder of ProjectManagementHacks.com, a career development resource for project managers. To receive a free copy of the Career Advancement Toolkit, join the Project Management Hacks email newsletter.

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