Being an effective manager requires a range of skills and aptitudes. Many of these fall under the broad umbrella of leadership skills.
There’s a degree of debate about whether leadership, as a skill, is learned or is an attribute that just comes naturally to some and not to others.
The truth is that some people are born leaders whilst others aren’t. This comes down largely to personality (which in itself is influenced by external factors). Leadership of a project management team as a skill can be developed though, through experience, training, education and also just learning when listening and when to speak.
Let’s look at the attributes of successful leaders and how you can foster them in your own role.
Good Leaders Communicate
Good leaders are always good communicators. The two go hand in hand. When I say communication, I don’t just mean chairing the Friday team meeting, but the kind of communication that goes on every day with everyone they come into contact with. Good leaders will instinctively know the times when a succinct and friendly email is appropriate, and others when an informal chat at someone’s desk is the best approach.
They will also be able to adapt their language and approach to their audience. This goes beyond simplifying technical information for individuals in other departments, but the ability to read people and their personalities and adapt accordingly in order to get across the information required.
One of the things you often hear, is that good communicators are also great listeners. That’s true, and one of the things that this involves is hearing not just what is said but what is meant.
So, next time you’re in a meeting, practise listening to someone’s tone of voice and reading their body language. Do they sound cheerful and confident or hesitant and anxious? Do they listen to what other people are saying, or do they just respond as though they haven’t heard you? All of these things can give you clues about the person delivering the information and help you contextualise what is being said.
Leaders are Aware of the Big Picture
Good leaders have a keen sense of situational awareness. They will have a deep understanding of how their team, department or project fits with the rest of the business. From this, they can better understand the challenges and opportunities that might lie ahead, what the risks are and so on. This bigger picture will also allow them to emphasise with other interests from across the business, and develop an appreciation that their needs and the needs of their team are only one part of the picture.
When handling complex and demanding projects, this ability to foresee future issues and hurdles is a hugely valuable asset, allowing leaders to put in place appropriate measures to mitigate future risk impact and protect their interests.
Own up to Failures
Managers expect their team to be honest with them and to tell them if there are problems when they occur. Good leaders have integrity and will also do the same. This inspires loyalty but also trust and in large and complex businesses with competing interests, this is a precious commodity.
If you can admit the odd failure to your team, they too will be encouraged to be more open about the challenges they are facing. All of this will give you a better view as to what is actually going on. Managers that feel that they have to appear perfect in front of their team often have an axe to grind and will inevitably lose respect when trying to deflect blame onto other people.
Cultivate Emotional Intelligence and Awareness
These are both difficult things to develop as they are inherent and come from experience and aptitude. Instead of always thinking logically in terms of tasks, systems and processes, good leaders will be able to simultaneously think at a human level, trying to understand the individuals behind the problem or the process.
We all know people who don’t interact with the rest of the team, don’t seem interested in others and appear unaware of their effect on others. Some people may come across as moaners, pessimists, or panickers needing constant reassurance. These people can all affect team morale because they have little insight into how their behaviour impacts their colleagues. By engaging with these people at a human level and empathising with their problems, good leaders can help cultivate awareness in individuals and bring them back to the fold.
Try envisaging the entire team as having a temperature, or a colour. What’s the temperature at the moment? Red hot, tepid or running cold? This kind of exercise is difficult if you are a predominantly logical or verbal thinker but can help you develop more emotional intelligence. Talk to your team about their children, pets and holidays to get some understanding of them as individuals and what makes them tick.
Leaders don’t Forget to Manage
“It has also become fashionable to complain that we are being over-managed and under-led. The opposite is now a greater problem: we have too much heroic leadership and not enough engaging management. We need to recognize that some of the best leadership is management practiced well, also that anyone with ideas and initiative can exercise leadership.”
- Quote from: Simply Managing: What Managers Do – and Can Do Better, Mintzberg, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013)
When Henry Mintzberg said this, he was talking about managers in corporations who adopted “inspirational” leadership styles and neglected the tasks of day-to-day management.
In project management, more than in any other discipline, it is essential to balance leadership with active management. The most effective way to do both is to use a structured project management methodology so that you and your team are talking the same language and have a shared understanding of what is to be delivered, by whom, when and how.
When the method becomes second nature, project managers have more intellectual and emotional energy for leading their teams and for those ideas and initiatives that are such a key component of leadership.