Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
“You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. This was the message from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for those situations when you believe in your heart that you are doing the right thing even if, or when others believe it to be wrong. This is what leaders do, they lead based upon what they believe to be right and will reap the consequences, whatever the outcome. Leadership is about doing; it’s about making things happen through the people who follow and enabling those people to make it happen. It’s also about being responsible for your actions and those of the others who have acted on your behalf.
Leadership has always been around in some form or another; there is always a leader of any pack or tribe. Successful leaders and their idiosyncratic styles are not only analysed and biographed but also emulated and even imitated. Practically speaking though it boils down to the ability of some to influence, motivate and direct teams of individuals to undertake some task or other. The traits of leadership in turn are a function of a leader’s character and the situations in which they find themselves, the people around them, and the task at hand.
Tomes are written on leadership and the qualities that ‘good’ leaders should possess as well as those which are less desirable. The ‘Great Man Theory’ is believed by some in that leaders are born not made while others believe that leaders are developed and hone their skills through training and experience. Leaders inevitably develop their own inimitable styles but as another wartime American, General Patton said, “Either lead, follow, or get out of the way” thus epitomising what a leader should, or rather must do and although about the military, it’s also applicable to Projects.
Leadership is about action. Leaders get things done through others and, while they may have some specialist skills it’s not always necessary for them to roll up their shirt sleeves and wade into a situation, exciting though it may be. Executing the work is the team’s job and, unless a situation demands it, leadership heroics are not always the order of the day nor dramatics.
Leaders communicate. This should be done actively rather than passively from behind a desk or on a soap box providing rambling rhetoric about what should have happened or suggesting what might happen. Communication is also about listening and listening actively; not to formulate some quick-witted repartee or defensive response but to understand and then, as per Covey’s fifth habit, be understood.
Leadership is an art and, just as in the art world, there are forgers. These forgers in their desire for fame, fortune or power can disguise their inadequacies and pull the wool over people’s eyes as they lead them a merry dance up a garden path. Some leaders can be wolves in sheep’s clothing who enter a fold by stealth with the initial deceit of outward good intentions. Conversely others can be sheep in wolves’ clothing hoping that their bullshit will baffle people’s brains and camouflage their inadequacies under a veneer of alpha-male or alpha-female bravado.
However, for some leaders, being human, they can reflect inwardly and question themselves and their ability. Some introspection is not necessarily a bad thing as it can help keep egos in check and arrogance at bay. It can also lead to feelings of self-doubt and that their position has been acquired through dumb luck rather than true ability. This experience is known as Imposter Syndrome but if a leader is a true imposter, then the leadership capability of an imposter will be sorely tested and, if tolerated, could be less than fortuitous.
Imposters can and do infiltrate organisations through cunningly contrived curriculum vitae, their last job and perhaps some nepotistic niceties. Oftentimes they believe that they can imbibe their organisation’s knowledge based on being appointed as ‘leader’. “Just because you work for NASA doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut” goes the saying and an organisation’s body of knowledge cannot be magically imparted to any ‘leader’. We must beware that efforts to gather knowledge may be related to personal agendas rather than garnering who knows what and getting the best out of any team. Imposters ‘in the know’ may be able to ‘talk the talk’ with impunity but rather than leading they merely ‘talk a good job’ as opposed to getting it done.
Yes, following! Sometimes leaders must follow, not necessarily follow another leader but follow through on their commitments, responsibilities, and obligations. The project management function of monitoring and control requires that project metrics and overall performance are followed up and any action, or even a conscious decision for no action, is taken.
A leader’s communication can oftentimes be perceived as one-way and possibly even dictatorial through the giving of direction, orders, or edicts. Dictatorial communication may be required on occasion, but no matter what the communication style some form of feedback is required to close the communication loop. This is achieved by following up on the results of actions taken as well as the effect that such action has had on a project and its people, the way they are working and what they may have to say. Such feedback, and knowing that feedback is allowed, is essential to creating a positive environment and forging a team.
Leaders also need to realise that sometimes they may not always be best placed to lead. This may seem strange but if circumstances are such that a subject matter expert is required then a leader must step aside and, for a time, follow the advice and direction of a more suited person or persons. This may be achieved in the form of a Task Force or a Working Party but this is not to say that a leader’s position of authority is relinquished but it does mean that a conscious decision has been made to formulate a leadership position and a supporting role. In such circumstances then a leader, rather than attempting to take charge and being tempted to seek any limelight, provides support rather than getting in the way…
Getting Out of The Way
Leaders lead, and sometimes they follow, but if they are doing neither then they, and their management who should be providing governance, must ask themselves, “what are we doing?”
Leadership is about action which includes analysing a situation, formulating a plan, actively communicating through understanding and being understood, following up, making things happen, and ultimately getting things done. “Actions speak louder than words” is a phrase that has been with us for centuries and ‘actions’ are generally recognised as being the best indicator of a person’s true character rather than merely words.
“What can’t speak can’t lie’ said the agriculturist Adam Collantine and we humans, through rhetoric, can be consummate liars. Leaders can spend a lot of their time communicating through speech but if this is merely for speeches’ sake and full of Churchillian terminological; inexactitudes and paltering half-truths then ‘talking a good job’ will be condoned as being “all mouth and no trousers” or “all hat and no head”. Their words will be of little or even no value.
Leaders who believe that they can get by with just ‘talking the talk’ at every opportunity rather than ‘walking the talk’ should heed Patton’s words and get out the way and let somebody who is unafraid to ‘walk the walk’ and is prepared to step into the breach, take the lead. A leader who is, or may become, an imposter can only pull the wool for so long at which time the people who may have followed out of curiosity to see what will happen next won’t even follow him to the pub! The significance of leadership is only really appreciated when it’s absent.
Both General Patton and Eleanor Roosevelt, as with many leaders weren’t everybody’s cup of tea; they had their loyal supporters as well as their ardent opponents. Leadership isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be, a popularity contest. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time and allowing the right people to do it. Times change and so does leadership, but it remains a time-honored truism that leadership requires action and a belief in what’s right (at the time) and, just as importantly, what is also wrong (at the time).
Leaders are not always remembered but bad leaders are rarely forgotten as are good leaders’ gaffs. It’s a sad but unsurprising truism that many people will remember a leader’s faux pax but will have difficulty in possibly recalling the far greater number of their successes. Leaders, like everybody else, make mistakes but their position makes them visible. For some this can be disconcerting and stepping up into the limelight can be daunting, however it’s part of the unwritten job description.
For example, Patton was known for his flamboyant and controversial style and leading from the front. He once said “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dyingfor his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country” and was renowned for being tough, aggressive, hot-tempered, and impatient. However, and despite many bloody battles, he is remembered by many for havingthe lowest casualty rates of any U.S. Army unit in WW2.
Patton was praised and idolized by some yet damned and even demonized by many others which brings to mind the idiom “No matter what the result you can’t win ‘em all”. This reinforces Mrs. Roosevelt’s candid observation that you may be damned by somebody no matter what the outcome if you take the lead; so it’s up to you to do the right thing at the right time!
Malcolm Peart is an UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.