Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Project Managers … visionary leaders or shepherds?


I was having an interesting philosophical discussion with some peers. Opinions were expressed on how project managers need to be visionary leaders. Most project management courses do not cover much on the art of leadership. I tend to think if you have to teach leadership, then it is already a lost cause. Although leaders are not necessarily born, they see an opportunity and make their mark. Those that wait to be taught or asked by definition are not suitable leaders. But this was an interesting discussion. Do project managers need to be visionary leaders?

Let us look at the traits for leaders. If you look at any leader, what is the one thing you remember about them? I am not old enough to remember many contemporary political leaders – Gandhi, Churchill etc. The one that I do remember is Mandela. These people have a vision of the future, have the courage to express it when it may not be the orthodoxy and have the ability to project their vision even through difficult times. It is the same in business. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not get Apple and Microsoft to where these companies are on a bed of roses. But neither the political or business leaders actually organized the mass rallies or the next version of the software.

The case of business leaders is even more interesting. The reason they are the leaders is because they see a gap in the market and have ideas to fill it. They want to be the first to market. They do not always appreciate what it would take to get there. They are also wired to see many possibilities and constantly thinking about the next big thing. They utilize people with the right knowledge to analyze which of these have wings and will fly, and which ones are likely to sink. The ones that fly then need to be managed to successful delivery.

Is project management the same? Well … part of it. The emphasis on vision and leadership is more appropriate at the top management level of the organization and even maybe at program or portfolio management level. Once these are defined into projects, the emphasis on leadership is different. I think of that leadership more akin to a young military officer. If you have seen the mini series Band of Brothers, I say Major Winters is the project manager. The role itself comes with an expected level of respect. But it is not given by default. You have to earn it by your track record.

Once you win over people by showing your aptitude they are willing to go beyond the call of duty for you. This is also a type of leadership, but different to the one that one that we had been talking about earlier. The goal is to win the individual battle, rather than focus on the overall war. He takes lessons from his team’s engagement and those that he sees of the other units. He marshals his resources to achieve his objectives. If he worries more about how the battalion is running its affairs, his troops will be left to fend for themselves. This is the type of leadership that can be applied to project management.

In project management, you provide leadership by understanding the context of the project and good communication, recognizing efforts and ensuring single purpose. When you have achieved trust of your project team, you have successfully become a leader.

Major Image Credit: PhotoBucket

5 responses to “Project Managers … visionary leaders or shepherds?

  1. Nathan Heazlewood August 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    While I agree with most of what you are saying here Shoaib I think that traits of leadership can be developed (some more than others).

    Yes having a vision is one of the major traits of leadership, however I think that being able to articulate that vision is another important quality of a leader, therefore communication skills are also important (both for leaders and for PMs). It is possible to develop communication skills (a good example of this being Toastmasters). There are of course other elements of leadership that are more difficult to be ‘trained’ in such as Emotional Intelligence, however this too I think can be developed (if nothing else through the acquisition of wisdom over time).

    It is interesting that you use a military (albeit fictional) example: the military is a prime case of where the theory is that ‘leaders’ (officers) can be trained as a result of nurture rather than nature. I guess that there could be some debate about whether this is successful or not- however most military organisations around the world seem to have specialised ‘officers training’ schools etc and invest a lot of resources into this.

  2. Shoaib Ahmed August 6, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Good points Nathan. While military invests plenty in officer training, not all officers are seen as the same by their men. Tools and techniques can be taught, not the ability to relate and influence.

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