Project Management Institute

Basic instincts


your leadership style today may not be so different than that of the bossy 8-year-old you used to be on the playground. The strongest influences on a person's leadership skills stem from childhood and early adulthood experiences, according to a 2005 survey comparing 31 leaders, conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, a not-for-profit global leadership development and research foundation. But even if you're not born with an innate desire to be in charge, you can still train yourself to be a more effective leader. J. Rodney Turner, Ph.D., Lille Graduate School of Management in Lille, France, and Daniel J. Crowley, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Joint Strike Fighter Program in Bethesda, Md., USA, discuss how leaders are made—and improved.

What are the most important qualities in project management leaders?

DR. TURNER: The ability to define a vision and lead people in that direction is the most important skill. There are a lot of supporting ones—emotional intelligence, scheduling, cost management and staffing—but if a person can't define a vision and motivate people to go in that direction, then the other skills don't matter that much.

Organizations are looking for people verbal about their ambition, rather than people who sit in the corner and think they're good engineers and will be noticed for doing good engineering work. Those people don't really make good leaders.

MR. CROWLEY: People have to have the desire to be in charge. There are reluctant leaders and reluctant warriors, but people who generally shy away from leadership tend not to be as effective.

The best leaders succeed when hard skills, project management skills and domain knowledge intersect with people skills and emotional intelligence.



—Rodney J. Turner, Ph.D., Lille Graduate School of Management, Lille, France

Can these qualities be learned or are they decided at birth?

MR. CROWLEY: Leadership skills aren't necessarily inherent, but they are strongly influenced by your parents or guardians during the first five years of life, which impacts the formation of your personality, including how you view the world, your degree of inquisitiveness and how you relate to others.

DR. TURNER: People are born with innate leadership skills that place them somewhere on a scale of 0 to 10 in terms of inherent leadership ability. But by training and practice, people can learn the skills and techniques to improve leadership ability, to build on strengths and downplay weaknesses. Almost nobody is born a 10, but some have the potential to reach it.

What are the best methods for leadership training?

MR. CROWLEY: [At Lockheed Martin] we do formal training on the hard skills to build competencies, but the most effective method is experiential and situational training based on multiple assignments. Our project managers may have a so-called “day job,” but they also have special assignments that stretch them further to learn time management and to apply lessons from one domain to another. Learning leadership skills takes having a high awareness of the environment around you. But most importantly, leadership is about implementation. Those who put the ideas into practice and turn the knobs are the ones that will progress faster. You can acquire pieces of it, but you need time to apply it and reflect to improve.

POINTS of view
RODNEY J. TURNER is a professor at the Lille Graduate School of Management in Lille, France, and a principal at EuroProjex, a consultancy in Surrey, England. He is the author of several books, including Choosing Appropriate Project Managers: Matching Their Leadership Style to the Type of Project [Project Management Institute, 2006]. DANIEL J. CROWLEY is executive vice president and general manger of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Joint Strike Fighter Program, Bethesda, Md., USA. He oversees an 8,000-member team currently developing three variants of the F-35 aircraft.

DR. TURNER: Sure, leadership skills can be gained through job experience, but classroom simulations can also develop leadership skills.

You can't teach mathematical formulae for leadership, but you can give people psychometric tests, such as the Myers-Briggs, and find out what their strengths and weaknesses are. Training courses are designed to develop explicit knowledge and they tend to focus on hard skills, but leadership is really much more tacit knowledge.

So you can't just take Leadership 101?

DR. TURNER: You could start to teach some things, such as the schools of leadership and traits. Not a lot has changed from Confucius through Aristotle to present day. Two things that leaders must always work on are building relationships with their team and selling their team the vision.

MR. CROWLEY: All one needs is pure motivation. People tend to operate in the paradigm of their last role and are not aware that they've now become that leader to whom they used to look up. They tend to be five to 10 years lagging in their self-perception of where they are in their career. My father used to say, “My job is to do only those things that only I can do, and not do those things that others should do.” A leader has to figure out what those things that only he or she can do and not go too far into other areas.

If a project leader makes his or her mark at a smaller firm, can those skills be transferred to a larger company?

MR. CROWLEY: The track record is not encouraging. In larger firms, employees tend to be more specialized. In smaller companies, employees often have to cover more roles and duties, requiring more self-reliance and the ability to learn multiple disciplines. People who go from big firms to small ones are used to having access to more specialists and deeper resources. They don't realize that they often have to do some of the work themselves. Conversely, when small firms are acquired into a large corporation, bureaucracy often stymies existing leadership models.

One of the key determinants of success or failure in leadership assignments is how thoroughly the needs of an individual match the needs of the position.

DR. TURNER: Companies of different sizes have different leadership and organizational structures.

There's not a general leadership style that's appropriate in all circumstances. In engineering projects, conscientiousness is very important. For information systems projects, it's self-awareness and communication. And my research shows that transactional leadership is best for simple projects, while complex projects require much more transformational leadership. If you try to apply transformational leadership to a simple project, then it will end up tearing itself apart. And if you try to apply transactional leadership to more complex projects, you just won't be able to deal with the complexities.



—Daniel J. Crowley, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Bethesda, Md., USA

Do leadership skills also vary across cultures and geographic locations?

DR. TURNER: The West has a very individualistic culture, where people are driven by personal ambition, and that requires a certain leadership style. In China, however, success is based very much on relationships and building relationships, so leadership styles have to reflect a country's values.

MR. CROWLEY: People are imprinted as they grow up about a willingness to be open to other cultures and countries. My father had done some business in China and talked about it when I was young. But someone raised in more of a parochial, anti-foreigner mindset would engage in business and use a leadership style with different countries and cultures in a different way. Such views are not innate, but the learned behaviors start early in childhood.

Can a project manager make the jump to executive leadership?

DR. TURNER: That depends upon the industry and the size of the projects. If a project manager wants to go from being a project manager of a $100,000 project up to manager of a $1 billion corporation, they have to be willing to learn new skills.

In the construction industry, it's quite normal for project managers to move into operational ends of management. When somebody has been managing billion dollar projects, moving up to a board director is not a big jump. But if you go to the high-tech industries, the projects tend to be much smaller, and project managers need to progress to program managers to program directors before slipping into more senior management levels.

MR. CROWLEY: Good leaders acknowledge that each level brings a new set of challenges. If one stays within a certain skill set, he or she will hit a glass ceiling and will fail when placed at the next levels. So it's important to anticipate needed skills in terms of strategy, team-building or external stakeholder engagement, and acquire and experiment with these before they're needed—when the stakes are lower. PM

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