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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Looks Like Management, Works Like Leadership

Have you ever had a great leader?

Neither have I. I’ve had a few effective managers, though, and that may be all we need to have. Or to be.

I’m sure there are people who have had great leaders, and have been part of great achievements as a result. Maybe we’ll hear from some of them. For myself, I’ve never experienced that, and no one I know has ever mentioned having done so.

We’ve been reading – and writing – a lot about leadership lately. A favorite discussion starter is the division between leadership and management. I’ve used it a lot, but now I’m thinking a little more deeply about it.

It starts with identifying the leader as one with a vision and the persuasive skill to convince people to pursue that vision. The manager, in such a construct, is the one who puts the procedures and routines in place to ensure that things work. One dreams big dreams and the other keeps the paychecks coming and the toilets flushing.

There is nothing inaccurate with that convention, but it’s a cardboard cutout that needs work if it is to be helpful to us who are managers, or work for managers. Or find ourselves in the midst of some enterprise that is being led in some fashion. Few people plop neatly into one slot or the other, and most of the time the reality is a mishmash, not a pair of slots.

We need a template that will help us get specific about what’s required of us if we are to evaluate and practice management and leadership effectively.

Let’s try this out: The two sets of practices – leadership and management – are stations along the same continuum. Maybe they’re the two ends of the continuum. At one end is all the originality, all the courage, all the excitement. At the other end is all the practicality, the problem solving and the efficiency. And maybe not.

Too much discussion of leadership vs. management can waste an awful lot of our time, because the evidence of our worklives is that there is a huge overlap across the middle of the arc. Most of the time, in actual experience, the practices of leadership and those of management intermingle and take turns running the show.

Or, too often, nobody is running the show because there is neither imagination nor discipline at the decision center of the enterprise.

As project managers, we need to escape the trap of empty concepts and look at reality. My take is this: Just about every group of people, properly led, has all the imagination and persistence it needs to handle just about any challenge. The key is the “properly led” part.

The leader, for example the project manager, does not need the full genius of leadership. Competency at project management will do. That competency is demonstrated in doing the necessary homework, identifying and engaging the important factors, consistently ensuring that the process works and building/conducting fully productive relationships among all the stakeholders.

Pulling that off requires the project manager to invest the hard work of researching the situation, working closely with all the key stakeholders, knowing how to fit project management tools and practices to the specifics of this effort, spending the time necessary to get to know each top team member and making sure reports, meetings, process corrections and plan management are timely and effective.

You’ve got to devise and put in place an appropriate, complicated, innovative effort and convince people to take responsibility for their shares in it. You have to confront behaviors that must be changed and uncomfortable moments that must not be allowed to poison the collaborative atmosphere you have so carefully built.

You must engage, and you have to stick with it. That takes a persistent kind of courage, considering.

It can be raw, personal, specific, delicate, important in a jungle of swirling trivia. The most vital moment can arise without warning, changing the entire character of the challenge. You don’t want to miss that moment. You have to be devoted to the centerline while responding to the signals.

If you can’t do all of that yourself (and who among us can?) you have to be smart enough to determine who among your available partners can handle certain parts of it. And you have to be persuasive enough to convince each of those persons to take on the responsibility and you must be mature enough to manage the delegations effectively.

There is no way all that can be neatly sorted into boxes. When it’s done right, we on the outside tend to take it for granted, because it looks easy.

Those on the inside, though, know. Close up, it is that impressive combination called “project management.”

Looks like management, works like leadership.

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