The Project Management Project (C1)

The Leadership issue

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A manager stands where he sits; the leader sits where he stands.

The primary cause of all project failures.  The prominent cause of project failures is a failure of the boss.  To paraphrase Rick, in the classic movie Casablanca, all of the plans, strategies and schemes can only amount to a hill of beans if your project manager can’t cut it.  Bosses make or break a project.  In this next set of articles, we will explore the good, the bad and the ugly.

But first, a digression.  Remark that, in the business literature, the words “manager” and “leader” are used interchangeably.  One reads about great managers of great companies leading their organizations through difficult times; and leadership teams going on management retreats to map out the future of their business.  Whoever manages is seen to lead, implicitly.  Except, funny enough, in sports where one hears about a team’s leaders, not managers, in the dressing room.  In the world of projects, we need to distinguish between the two, because that person will make or break a project.

We define the term “boss” as the person vested with organizational authority.  The “boss” runs things and makes final decisions.  People will follow great bosses to another company but quit their own jobs if the boss is a buffoon or a tyrant, regardless of the business’ exalted sheen.  By extension, corporations exist on the strength of their values.  Those values endure – or not – through their bosses.  The truth of the matter is that bosses play an outsized role in the success or failure of their organizations.  The fate of a project rests in the hands of the boss.  Note that all managers are necessarily bosses, pursuant to our definition, but a leader, not always.

Is the project better served by a leader or a manager?  The simplicity of the question is misleading.  For starters, the question is a false choice.  In most instances, a project boss requires a combination of both.  A project will always need a competent manager equipped with project, organization and business skills.  A project remains an ensemble of sequenced tasks that flourish within an ordered framework, which is the prerogative of the manager.  A leader will be needed when the people element becomes an imperative of a project.  This human factor manifests itself when emotions enter the fray against the backdrop of cold, rational work flows.  The emotional currents that permeate project teams in such circumstances cannot and will not abide by the logic of a schedule, the demands of a contract, or the dictates of a boss.  They require a leader able to deal with the emotional tensions at play.  In extreme cases, a dictator may be the only remedy, as in instances of crisis, organizational upheaval, and personnel or contractual acrimony.

Authority spectrum.  Every boss is bookended the same way: subordinates reporting to him on one side, a higher-level boss to whom he must report, on the other.  It is only at the highest level (President, Chairman of the Board, Prime Minister) that one answers to constituents rather than another boss.  The project boss oversees a team made of subordinates and reports to the Framework Lead (and likewise, to the owner for the Framework Lead).  In all cases, the job of the boss is a functional position created by the organization who confers the boss’ authority over the subordinates.  That authority is independent of the opinion of the subordinates, and liable to take on various forms along a spectrum between indifference and tyranny.

Picking the right boss matters enormously to a project.  Do you choose a manager, who knows how things are run at the company?  Or do you select a leader who can instill a desire to succeed in the team, beyond mere project metrics?  Or must you appoint a tyrant because a project is already so far off the rails that it’s do-or-die time?  McGregor’s classic division of managerial styles into theory X and theory Y (X believes in command and control; Y believes in participatory leadership) is one way to frame the question).

However, since very few people are pure X or Y, we need a more nuanced gradation.  Organizational behavior theory approaches the question through the idea of locus of control, which impacts one’s authority upon the fate of a project.  For this, we define an authority spectrum, illustrated in table 3.1 below.

 

  Dangerous archetypes Recommended archetypes
Boss archetype Abdicrat Anager Misnager Manager Leader Tyrant
State of project Condemned Chaotic Disordered Ordered Challenged Threatened
Degree of control Negative None Ad hoc Explicit Directed Absolute

Note that this spectrum is not a leadership model; that topic is amply covered in the literature.  Instead, it is used for differentiating the causes and effects of various kinds of authority immanent to an individual’s emotional make-up.

Table 3.1 comprises six boss archetypes (abdicrat, anager, misnager, manager, leader, tyrant).  The group “dangerous archetypes” must be avoided on account of theinegative effects imparted to the state on the project (appearing in the third row).  The “recommended archetypes” trio is suggested as a function of the existing state of the project.  The last row indicates the level of control exerted by the boss archetype over the progress and fate of a project.

People are intuitively inclined to operate according to one of the six archetypes.  In times of crisis, people will usually alter their behavior towards the archetype to their right.  Conversely, when things are going smoothly, people may lapse towards the archetype to their left.  For example, the leader archetype will tend to tyranny if things go off the rails, but relax to a manager archetype when things are good.  The extremities are paired in a circular fashion: the tyrant veers towards abdicrat in bad times and leader in good times; likewise for the abdicrat, towards the anager and the tyrant archetypes.

In the next article, these archetypes will be explored further.

 

Further insights can be gleaned from chapter 3 of Investment-Centric Project Management, available on Amazon.com.

 


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