Project Leadership

Andrew Covell
I recently presented on the topic of leadership at a lunchtime CPD session and discussed what leadership is and how it differs from management.

In February 2014 the UK Government’s Major Projects Authority (MPA) released its annual report (PDF, 545KB). The Authority noted that of the 191 major projects collectively worth £354bn, only 42 per cent were regarded as highly likely or probable to deliver on time and on budget and 16 per cent had significant doubts on deliverability. One of the MPA’s key findings was that historically, less than a third of major government projects kept to original time and cost estimates, concluding that this was due at least in part to a lack of effective project leadership. 

What is project leadership?

The Association of Project Managers (APM) defines leadership as "…the ability to establish vision and direction, to influence and align others towards a common purpose and to empower and inspire people to achieve project success. It enables the project to proceed in an environment of change and uncertainty."

This could be a definition of project management, but the APM’s Chief Executive, Andrew Bragg, noted that "Essential to the success of major projects is their leadership as distinct from their management…" and that leadership is a "mind-set not a methodology". Or as the management consultant Peter Drucker put it "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things".

Research also suggests that leaders and managers are very different from each other. Leaders are experimental, visionary, flexible and creative. They use their intuition and are always searching for alternative solutions. They aim to inspire, empower and delegate; thrive on crisis and think laterally to confront and resolve problems. Managers on the other hand are analytical, structured, controlled, deliberate and orderly. They use logic to determine the scope of a problem. They aim to instruct, control and take charge; seek stability, and prefer to plan around problems.

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

Harnessing leadership qualities is therefore, fundamental to project success. A leader will establish the project vision and ensure the team remain focused on it; ensure the project has effective governance with regular reality checks and reviews; will be a visible champion of the project; will motivate and inspire project teams by giving them praise when they are doing things right, guidance when they are not and support when things go wrong; will encourage innovation and the use of best practice, and, above all, will make timely decisions to resolve problems by being proactive and not reactive.

Leaders are experimental, visionary, flexible and creative. They use their intuition and are always searching for alternative solutions.

The reasons why projects fail to deliver are many and varied, however they can generally be categorised as follows: lack of effective sponsorship and leadership, poor project definition, unclear and unrealistic objectives and targets, inadequate risk evaluation, client inexperience, poor forecasting of the demand for the project, poor communication, inadequate stakeholder management and a focus at the wrong end of the project.

Whilst a lack of leadership is just one of these, it could be argued that this lack of leadership is the reason why most, if not all, of the other reasons come to pass.

However, if a project team were staffed entirely by leaders then not much would get done, so perhaps the ultimate challenge for any leader is to draw in the managers needed to deliver the project on time and on budget!

Written by