Lately I have trouble saying “project management” because, when I do, I always have the urge to blurt out “You can manage cows, but you must LEAD people!” So I’m going to dedicate this week’s blogs to exploring leadership with no apologies to leaving out “management”, and even “project”, every now and then.
Most of the experiences that have increased my cynicism over the years are due to failures of leadership, both my own and others. I spent the first 10 years of my career naively expecting people in official leadership positions to step up, do the right thing and lead courageously, even at great possible cost to their own livelihood and career. (OK, I said I was naÃ¯ve.) From the perspective of my minuscule position of relative powerlessness, my organizations were steaming heaps of dysfunctional behavior and inefficiency, and what our official leaders needed to do seemed blindingly obvious. I just couldn’t understand why they were standing around smiling and slapping each other on the back about meeting monthly numbers while smoldering embers of inevitable corporate downfall were poised to burst into flames all around us.
It never occurred to me that things looked different from the top of the totem pole. It wasn’t until years later that someone told me that the hierarchy in companies is like a bunch of monkeys sitting in a tall tree. When you look down you just see a bunch of smiling faces, but when you look up . . . well, you get the picture. The guys at the top didn’t even perceive the gaping holes in our business fabric, while I saw tattered remnants resembling the effect of acid rain on clothing.
In those days I found myself constantly looking for help to descend from above, but help was not coming, at least not from that direction. The big whack on the side of my head that brought enlightenment was that I had a responsibility to lead no matter what my rank in the company. Leadership is not a position in a company org chart or a title on a business card. Leaders exist at all levels of an organization. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all kinds of backgrounds and different sorts of education. Leaders can be identified by the way they talk and the way they act.
Great leaders do not see themselves as victims of their circumstances. They do not lament their lack of formal authority, and they do not wait for others to come to their rescue. They accept responsibility for their contribution to the situation, and they are committed to making a positive difference.
What is leadership? Leadership is not the same as management. What’s the difference? In spite of the bovine reference, both are essential to successful businesses, but many organizations are over-managed and under-led. Budgets and schedules, while easy to measure and track, do not occupy the center of a great leader’s attention. Leadership is far different from management, and just as important. According to HBS’s Kotter, managers plan, budget, organize, staff, control and correct, while leaders set direction, align people, motivate and inspire.
Leadership is an inside-out job. I think of it as 5 concentric circles that build upon one another. It starts within through becoming consciously aware of ourselves, who we are, what we stand for, what we care about more than the next raise, promotion or the approval of those around us. Awareness enables choice, and is at the core of self-leadership. Once we can lead ourselves then we can reach out to lead others one-on-one. Aside from the example we set, the only way we have to lead other people is through communication, both talking and listening. Once we are capable of leading one person through effective communication we can tackle the more complex social dynamics involved in leading a team – keeping everyone rowing in the same direction. Beyond team leadership lays the challenge of leading a cross-functional organization, which is more like being the captain of a super-tanker. You can’t just grab the wheel and make a quick turn, and it can take a very long time to get your direction to turn into changes in where the ship is headed and how quickly. Beyond is the ultimate test of a leader, where culture, currency exchange rates and chronological obstacles plunge you into the truly Olympic sport of global leadership.
While leaders perform many valuable functions, the areas where they can provide the most practical benefit are:
– to help their people avoid two of the most common causes of failure: lack of clear goals and poor communication.
– to inspire people to overcome their inherent fear of failure and have the courage to set bold and challenging goals that may initially seem nearly impossible.
Many people occupy the position of leadership without demonstrating the qualities of leadership. Truly great leaders enable ordinary people to work together to accomplish extraordinary results out of reach of any one person’s grasp. Leadership is a journey to future possibilities that frequently seem impossible. Leadership unleashes the greatest potential of people in support of making a positive difference. And on a daily basis leadership is behaving in a way that inspires and sets an admirable example for other people. The purpose of leadership is to achieve what we cannot accomplish alone, to tackle dreams and possibilities that we can only fulfill together. Right now this planet is facing quite a few threats that could benefit from the collective genius of the human population. Based on watching the news (a big mistake: people who watch the news have been statistically proven to be more depressed), I’m thinking we’d better not wait for the official leaders of the world to solve these problems. Perhaps it’s time for a consciousness conspiracy? Wanna join?
– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.