Leadership

The difference between commanding and shaping a project


In every life a little rain must fall. To everything there is a season. Blah, blah, blah. Old ways of saying "suck it up, buttercup". We've all heard these platitudes before, usually from friends with fabulous jobs who want us to stop complaining about how mundane our existence has become.

In my case, a friend of mine who is thinking about getting into project management recently asked me what "life is like in the captain's chair". The phrase undoubtedly tells you more about my friends than you wanted to know. It also says a lot about the problems I run into at work and why I chose the profession that I did.

You see, like most people who didn't understand the truth, I always thought that project managers ran the show. As a consultant it was always the project manager who set up the activities. As an architect, it was the project manager who worked tirelessly to bring my vision to life. As an author, the project managers had the thankless but ultimately powerful task of keeping things organized.

It's the same fallacy which I used to laugh at in the writings of turn of the century political reformers. "The hand that rocks the cradle" is a great phrase (if a lousy movie) but subtle influence of future generations is fairly dissatisfying when compared to direct control of one's own destiny. It's also easy to convince yourself, looking at it from the outside, that it's a heck of a lot more powerful than it proves in practice. Yes, your mother shapes a lot of what you do, just as a project manager shapes but does not control the outcome of projects he shepherds to completion.

The ability to shape rather than control isn't what I thought I signed up for. I've always been a control freak; the guy people put in charge of things because to do otherwise would result in my wresting control of the process from the well-intentioned and probably better qualified folks actually in charge. In an earlier part of my life I didn't even think twice about it - I just took control and let the chips fall where they may.

Shaping is more of a parent's responsibility than that of a young, determined man out to make his mark on the world. Shaping requires patience. It requires understanding. It requires not throttling people when they come up to you and ask stupid questions about why a system with a three-month logical lag time doesn't display real-time data.

The irony of this distinction is not lost on me. As I've grown older and started a family, I've moved from being the butt-kicker to being the person behind the scenes who tries to arrange things so the aggressive folks can shine. I'm sure that, somewhere, a talented technician and technical visionary wonders how I got to be in charge while his obvious talents languish. Meanwhile I ponder yet another round of data integration tasks and consider whether writing the meeting minutes means more to me than filling out day-care paperwork.

So, when my friend asked me what life was like in the captain's chair, I just chuckled. I haven't sat in that chair for years now and it will be at least another two or three before I even think about trying it again. Until then, it's back to rocking that cradle and slowly twisting things so they come out the way I need them to.

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