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Leadership and Management

There has been considerable focus on the differences between leadership and management lately. Emphasis is being placed on the ability to lead as opposed to merely "managing”. In case anyone gets the wrong impression here, I’m an advocate of both skills when each is applied correctly in the appropriate circumstances. I’m directing these comments in the project area specifically, where both skills are essential for success.

Since my background is in the project management field I’m writing this from the perspective of the project manager. Let’s start with a common understanding of the meaning of the two words. Leadership is commonly understood to be the ability to lead a group of people to achieve a goal; management is commonly understood to mean the ability to control a group of resources to achieve the goal. According to Ann Marie E. McSwain, Assistant Professor at Lincoln University, "….Leadership is about setting and not just reacting to agendas, identifying problems, and initiating change that makes for substantial improvement rather than managing change.” The two words have very similar meanings in the area of projects, although the meanings become more specific to the way project work is performed. Leadership requires the senior executives of the performing organization to identify project goals and objectives that can best help the organization the project is being performed for. Another way to think of this ability is to compare it to a military model. The general staff are responsible for strategic thinking and battle plans. Officer staff are responsible for successfully executing those plans. The senior executives in an organization are responsible for strategic planning which includes defining projects which support those plans. The project manager is responsible for managing the project in such a way as to achieve the goals and objectives set for it, but do not normally contribute to the strategic planning that takes place before the project is initiated.

Managing a project requires the project manager to utilize the resources available to the project to deliver the goals and objectives that have been set for the project by project stakeholders. The project manager will use his or her leadership skills in the course of monitoring and controlling project activities to ensure that the project completes on or before schedule and at or under budget. Those leadership skills do not extend to initiation of the project which solves an organization’s problem or gives it an advantage in the market place; the project manager is there for a very specific purpose: to turn the vision of the strategic thinker into reality via the project.

The executive that envisions the project and the project manager who translates that vision into the deliverables and deadlines of a project have both have roles to play in the project’s success. The executive is responsible for choosing a strategy that will be successful in furthering the interests of the organization and the project manager is responsible for planning the activities that will deliver the strategy’s goals and objectives, and execution of that plan. A good example of the way these two roles work together to achieve success is the Hoover (Boulder) Dam project which is described elsewhere on the three O web site. Herbert Hoover was the sponsor of the project, both as Secretary of State and later as President. Hoover had the vision of providing irrigation and hydro electric power to the surrounding states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah by damming the Colorado River. Frank Crowe had the managerial and leadership skills to plan the project and deliver it under budget and ahead of schedule. This was a monumental undertaking at the time and is still delivering on its promise of water and hydro-electric power to the areas it serves. Hoover’s name is on the dam (although it has been called the Boulder Dam at times) but Crowe’s contribution was no less important to the success of the project. You may want to read more about this amazing man’s contribution to that project. The facts are available on the web site.

The Hoover/Crowe partnership is an example of a relationship where each successfully filled their role. Where either the executive or the project manager fails, the result is disaster. The failure of a project manager is usually much less serious than the failure of the executive to formulate a strategic plan that helps the organization. Project managers usually fail to deliver over a period of time. Smart executives who spot this failure can correct the problem by replacing the project manager. A project based on a flawed strategy has no such safety net. If the project manager plans and executes successfully, the project delivers a system that is not what the organization needs to move it forward and the project budget is wasted.

Leaders in the role of project sponsor have other duties to the project; they can’t expect to impart the vision and then walk away, they must champion the project and oversee its execution. The project manager must be given the resources he or she needs to successfully execute their project plan to succeed. The project sponsor should ensure that the project manager gets the resources they ask for. Projects that don’t have the benefit of a sponsor who champions the project will suffer by being denied the resources they need. This may not kill the project, but it can severely hamper it. Project managers who find themselves in this situation demonstrate their leadership capabilities by championing the project themselves with the business sponsor, the steering committee, and other senior executives. Where the project manager cannot prevail on the organization for the resources they need for success, they must point out the risks to the project and ensure their audience understands and accepts those risks.

Most projects, at least in the software development world, will experience changes along the way. Changes usually come in two different varieties: those that add value to the project and those that don’t. The project manager should be up to the task of managing these changes and providing the executive sponsor with the information they need to make decisions on the major changes. This is change management 101, but what happens when the changes overwhelm the project? The project manager cannot prohibit stakeholders from asking for change, or prohibit the executive sponsor from accepting changes they feel add value to the project, but having to deal with too many of these changes can delay the delivery of the project past its "best before” date and alter the nature of the goals and objectives to such a degree that the project will no longer deliver on its original promise. Responsibility for controlling this situation relies with the project manager but the project manager must rely on the sponsor’s wisdom to reject the changes that will negatively impact the project’s ability to deliver on its promise. The project manager can only alert the sponsor to the impact of accepting the change, or the cumulative impact of a multitude of changes, the sponsor must do their part by rejecting the changes or stifling the source of the change requests.

The project manager must use leadership skills to lead the project team, make them a cohesive unit that delivers greater value than the sum of their parts, and enable them to deliver on the project’s promise. These skills are also discussed in another section of the three O web site. There are also many courses and seminars available on this subject. The leadership skills the project manager implements will be utilized in the management of the project work and so are a subset of their managerial skills. The skills are the same as the ones that the business sponsor must have with one notable exception. The sponsor must have the ability to plan strategically and envision a solution to the organization’s problem, or a system that will give the organization the competitive edge. Without the leadership skills required for each role, the project will fail.