Leadership in IT Projects

I’m a big fan of Starship Troopers. Before you run away screaming please note that I mean I’m a big fan of the 1959 book by Robert A. Heinlein and only a regular level fan of the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie. Heinlein wrote science fiction about the nature of government and the role of the people in society. In a later novel he stipulated the things that a human should be able to do and one part of the quote always interested me, to paraphrase Heinlein: a person should be able to “…take orders, give orders, cooperate, and act alone” when necessary. Sound advice, especially the giving and taking orders part, and doubly so when it comes to project management.

Leadership, Starship Troopers style! Would you like to know more?

When setting out to get a project done, the person responsible for the drafting and execution of the plan is acting in a very serious leadership role. They are, for all intents and purposes, the living definition of leadership. They must wholeheartedly embrace the vision of the project they are managing and they must then promote it as if the idea had been sent to them in a dream and their new mission in life was to get it done (on time and on budget). They must then rally the support of those around them who can play a part in completing that mission, they must use every ounce of authority, credibility, charisma, and influence to get as many people as possible on board with them and all working towards that one, singular, glittering vision of the future.

They must inspire doubters and convince them that the project is a worthy one and thus make true believers of them. They must beg and borrow  (but not steal – you’ll see why) whatever they need to get the job done but always displaying the utmost respect and honesty towards those around them. Calling these people Project Managers does them a terrible disservice as they are more than mere managers (most managers I know don’t display much in the line of leadership (though there are the exceptional few)); a manager’s job is to remove the obstacles that get in the way of their people doing great things while a leader imparts a vision for their people to believe in and strive towards.

Leadership is the highest form of service. There is nothing more subservient then a true leader as their purpose is to serve those who follow them, and if they are the person out in front then everyone follows them. A Project Manager has to lead the stakeholders of an organisation to that bright place where the project is complete and life is better. That journey is always a hard one and that’s why they need to be such good leaders in order to get everyone there safely.

As well as leading (and therefore serving) those involved with the project at hand, a project manager must also serve the needs of the organisation. They have to actually do the project they were brought in for so they have a narrowly defined criteria for success, criteria set down by senior management, and they also need to be able to effectively deal with management, they need to be able to manage up if and when the need arises in the execution of the project. So, does a PM have to be a true believer themselves in order to be able to inspire others? Well, yes.

If they don’t believe that the project is worthwhile then they’ll never be able to sell the idea to anyone else. If a project leader doesn’t believe that the new finance system you are installing is actually going to do the things you hope there’s no way they can deal with you and everyone else with the honesty and integrity needed of their position. They have to have the belief that what they are doing will work and therefore not only meet their performance criteria but also serve the organisation itself, making it a better place in some way.

The leadership aspect of the role of Project Manager is so overlooked the majority of the time that it  hardly ever gets mentioned at all, but without it how can any project ever get done? Without the ability to lead, no PM could get the buy-in they need. As to why leadership is rarely looked for in a Project Manager I can only speculate that managers, insecure in their own position, are reluctant to hire in strong individuals for fear of having a bright light shone on their own shortcomings. If they only realised that hiring the best would serve to elevate them, then more and more projects would reach successful conclusions, though if strong, leading Project Managers were hired then the best scapegoat for a failed project would be removed from the equation.

Ensuring  strong leadership qualities are present in the Project Manager and giving them the freedom to lead are some of the best ways to avoid a failed project, however ignoring these and the other qualities that make up a good PM can have disasterous consequences.

Part 1: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum
Part 2: The Nature of IT in the SME
Part 3: The Nature of Technical Support
Part 4: The Nature of IT Projects

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