Leadership

Exhibit leadership on challenging projects


Project managers need to be leaders. Leadership is easy when things are going well. It's when times are tough that being a good leader can be hard. It's also the time when strong leadership is most needed. Here are some things to keep in mind to lead your team through a difficult project.

  • Keep your eyes on the big picture. When things get tough, everybody's temptation is to become acutely focused on the problems. A leader stays focused on the vision of completing the project objectives. The short-term details are important -- to the manager role. While you're managing the details, your leadership keeps everyone focused on the big picture and the value you're providing. Don't get bogged down entirely on the details. Continue to lead as well.
  • Maintain team cohesion. When circumstances get tough, even the most loyal team members can tend to become pessimistic. Team members are tempted to start shooting perceived enemies and, unfortunately, they sometimes shoot each other. They begin to question each other and find fault with one another. A leader fights this urge and helps the team stick together.
  • Be the first to sacrifice. When there's pain to share, leaders should do just that. If the team needs to work overtime, the project manager should work overtime as well. If the project team needs to come in on Saturday, the project manager needs to be in as well. Don't just share the pain -- take more than your share (but not all) of it.
  • Remain calm. Panic is a common human emotion and no one is immune to it. A leader, however, thinks the problems through and remains rational. Being calm will enable the leader to make the right decisions for the entire team. Panic only leads to disaster, while calm leads to victory.
  • Motivate. In tough and challenging times, people tend to get emotionally drained. They can't see how it's all going to work out. The project manager should focus on motivating the team and show how the result will be good. A leader must remain positive and likewise keep the team positive.
  • Create small wins. When things are bad, the team starts to wonder how they can win. The project manager should look for ways to win -- even small, interim victories. With each small win, the leader will build esteem and a positive attitude.
  • Keep a sense of humor. Hardly anything in life can't be laughed at. As the project manager you need to look for opportunities to instill fun, and laugh at yourself and the situations that present themselves.

When project managers show leadership, the team will follow - maybe not immediately, but eventually. The project manager is in the right position to lead the charge and get the entire project back on sound footing again.

26 comments
lucky.la.riccia
lucky.la.riccia

Good post Tom, potential additions that don't always get a mention are "Lead by Example" and "Lead/Drive Innovation"

mayuresh.walke.ml
mayuresh.walke.ml

Well written and doesn't sound to arsy, which tips like this can sound like. :) M

jleonti
jleonti

Article was a great motivator.

jleonti
jleonti

Article was a great motivator.

eduardo
eduardo

I think that many project managers should read this article. Many of them has education but no pratical applicability of simply theory on dealing with human beings and tough situations. Thanks Tom!

Ivy Clark
Ivy Clark

"If the team needs to work overtime, the project manager should work overtime as well. If the project team needs to come in on Saturday, the project manager needs to be in as well. Don???t just share the pain ??? take more than your share (but not all) of it." Yes, sometimes it is necessary for the project manager to be around during OT. But I don't totally agree with this clause. Sometimes being a good project manager means trusting your team to do an excellent job. A project manager shouldn't need to baby sit them. If the project manager is already doing a lot of overtime to get the necessary in place for his team and project to run smoothly, he shouldn't be expected to be around everytime they do OT. Perhaps rewarding the team would be better and more practical? E.g. giving time-off to make up for the OT they had to do? Taking them out for meals? Great read though, and lots of other good points! Thanks for sharing!

preeganshu
preeganshu

Vey true - it is the hottest fire that makes the strongest steel. I think the most important thing to overcome during difficult times is to stay focussed on the issue on hand instead of finding the scapegoat on whom the responsibility can be passed on. Rights mean responsibilities. Own it - we are none the worse for learning from a mistake and not repeating them.

aamdoskar
aamdoskar

Nice article, i will follow it

geoff.schmidt
geoff.schmidt

Keep communicating the big picture to the team. Often, your team will also get caught in the depressing nitty-gritty, and it's encouraging for them to remember what the project is aiming to achieve. Also, teams will be better equiped to discover those crafty ways of fixing things if they understand the big picture.

ppapapetrou
ppapapetrou

Excellent article and very helpful!!!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I would add, "discuss problems openly". You don't want any gorillas growing in the room.

altaee
altaee

What "Lead by Example" and "Lead/Drive Innovation" mean?

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

Remember it is the Project Manager who owns the schedule and budget. If the team is working overtime, it means either the PM made a mistake in planning or the PM actively scheduled the OT. In either case, the team is taking the hit for the manager's decision. That in and of itself should be sufficient for any manager to spend the time with the team and not bug off at 5:00 or on the weekend.

roxannemcclain
roxannemcclain

You're right - I never did have to babysit - we generally work with adults ;> . And, as a manager and employee in IT for over 15 years, I knew that we all love tokens of appreciation - time off, pizza, sincere expressions of appreciation... Everyone manages differently but I enjoyed the response from teams when I did join them for OT. I found many occasions to join my team when OT was necessary. This accomplished many things. It let them know that what was good for the goose was also good for the gander. It let them know that when it came to being in the trenches, I was willing to be there with them. It made me available for guidance and direction, if necessary, which expedited problem resolution since my input was immediate. It let me know that while I might not be as into the details with them, I thought it was important to offer my assistance when possible. Most importantly, though, was the fact that it let them know that I was part of the team, not over the team. This is very motivating for me and, I think, for many people. I certainly wasn't there for every OT event but I tried to be there when the OT was particularly critical.

manish.thatsme
manish.thatsme

Well...If the project is doing smoothly then no need for Manager to sit along with team but when sailing becomes difficult Manager has to be with the team all time.Rewarding comes into picture if team has successfully delivered the task moreover lessons should be taken in such cases.This has been a wonderful article in terms of learnings experiences from so many places. Great going

chrisbuxton
chrisbuxton

Perhaps one of the inferences from this article is that true Project Management is not about schedules and time lines its about the ability to take a group and mould them into a productive team keeping them motivated and focused. On of the benefits of a well molded team is the sense of loyalty to that team and the willingness to go above and beyond to help the team. When that is enabled the individual reward is immaterial as the individuals reward is his contribution to the team. Perhaps the focus should not be on material reward but on investment in the team and the reinforcement of the team ethic. There is always a danger that if you provide individual reward for individual effort then all you get is effort in the expectation of the reward. i.e. I work hard today because I want tomorrow off. Throughout many of the threads in this forum the focus is on Project management as a toolkit of resources based on academic study. Project managers need to get out and do what leaders do. When the going gets tough it is no good hiding behind a Gantt chart bleating about issues and risks. I come from a military background and there is only one way to lead...............from the front.

meryllogue
meryllogue

Don't deny the mistake... learn from it.

manish.thatsme
manish.thatsme

The perfect way to manage a team in big project crisis is to delegate the task to mudule leads and mentoring whether the things are moving in right direction or not.Manager should be involved in risk mitigation and leading while the detailed planning should be left for module leaders.Small success should be celebrated in such time.Another important thing is , one should not waste much time in team meetings.

jaroy
jaroy

Great topic! Thanks for this very timely reminder.

dekonincka
dekonincka

Every management class that I have taken suggests that a manager cannot motivate others, that motivation is an internal thing for employees. That said, a good leader helps the team to focus on developing solutions during a time of crisis. Without a leader teams often go into a hand-wringing mode which is followed by the team members focusing on how they can save themselves or jump to other opportunities. The leader, especially in a time of crisis, sets the tone, vision, and focus for the team. A good leader helps frame the crisis in a way that the team can focus on the solution and alternatives.

Ivy Clark
Ivy Clark

Yea, don't meet for the sake of it. Every meeting should have a set of objectives, and only the relevant people should be included. By relevant, I mean people who can contribute and people who will be affected by the outcome of the meeting.

meryllogue
meryllogue

This is a great article, Tom. I think your best to date (that I have read). I agree with the comments... well spoken. I would add about meetings: Don't have status meetings (unless they are

Editor's Picks