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Saturday, November 23, 2013

You Radiate Leadership . . . or Not

When you walk in, what do they think?
When you call the meeting to order, what do they expect?
When you give assignments, what goes through their minds?
When you ask for ideas, or volunteers – how do they respond?

We frequently talk about communication, and we’re actually doing communication whenever we’re in any kind of contact with other people. Too bad we do too little thinking about communication.

For project managers, this set of behaviors is the catalyst for everything. Without effective communication, your expertise, research and preparation are wasted. Your talent goes to work for you when it demonstrates itself in providing value, and not before. You build a team or gain stakeholder collaboration by what you say and do, and how you say and do it. Most of the time, though, we are too busy, too distracted. Communication is a time-management issue. When we allow our tasks to occupy our thoughts, they dominate our manner.


I’m not sure I know anyone to whom the practice of leadership comes naturally. There are, of course, compelling personalities, people others want to be around, the ones you want to please just because of their personality, looks, whatever. Attractive people attract people. Popularity provides a leg up in leadership potential, but it does not constitute leadership. While it’s a definite asset, it doesn’t convince people to follow, acquiesce or support.

I once asked a roomful of people to define the term “presence,” referring to the impression a person might create. One man knew exactly what it is. He described a general from his Army days. “When that general walked into a room with 200 people in it, everybody reacted right away. They all knew he was there. Everything stopped, and everyone turned to look.”

As the door opened and the officer entered, people close by fell silent and stood almost at attention. Others noticed and responded likewise. The ripple quickly ran through the room.

Conversely, we’ve all known important people who didn’t act like important people. They didn’t need to attract attention, or didn’t care whether they got attention or not. Or they just didn’t know how to do it.

As a project manager, you want attention. You want people to take you seriously. You don’t lead just because you want to lead – you lead because people decide to follow you. The essence of management is accomplishing results through the efforts of other people.

The fundamental question for the project manager is: Why should they do what you want? The fundamental challenge for the project manager is to provide a compelling answer. When you manage that, you are a leader. The answer, the most powerful driver of leadership, is performance. There is no more powerful an incentive to follow someone than the conviction that I will succeed by sticking to this person.


Building leadership is a series of action items. Distinct behaviors build performance, and we need to consciously work on those behaviors. Nobody is born with this stuff.

If something about you, the circumstances or the organization gives you an initial boost, good. Take advantage of it, but don’t rest on it. The people whose support you need may have some favorable inclination, but whether it lasts depends totally upon what happens right away.

If you are going to impress people with your competence and confidence, you set out to do the things that will catch their favorable notice. You invest time and effort – a lot of it. You do your homework, very thoroughly. You study and practice the behaviors of leaders you admire. You conduct meaningful meetings, you guide people in consistent performance and you make the effort necessary to generate enthusiastic commitment in your group. It all requires thorough preparation, thoughtful presentation and reliable follow-through.

The general didn't impress those 200 people just by walking into a room. Their reaction resulted from their knowledge of him as a person who did, well and consistently, the things good generals do.

For us task-oriented action figures, this building of leadership is not natural -- at least at first, and it's not easy. It often requires development of disciplines we never needed as we rose to notice as top individual contributors. Once you’ve got this down, your team members and stakeholders don’t need to be convinced you’re a leader. You radiate it. Presence.

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