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Leading Strategic Projects From the Front and From Behind

Strategic Projects

What’s the difference between management and leadership?

Leadership is a broad topic and it won’t come as a surprise that there are many different ways of leading a team.  In my work I often distinguish between management and leadership as a way to highlight that leadership is concerned with people as opposed to planning and tracking tasks.

Managing ProjectsAs a project manager it’s tempting to be overly focused on tasks, deliverables, processes and solving problems. After all a huge part of a project manager’s job is to plan, monitor and mitigate risks. And because it’s essential that the project is delivered on time, the project manager’s interaction with team members often becomes transactional, wanting to check that work has been completed. To my mind these project managers aren’t leading the project. They are managing it.

Leadership is different to management in that it’s much more people-oriented. A leader is concerned with providing the team with a vision and is good at understanding what motivates each individual. A leader is someone who is able to inspire and empower team members rather than simply telling them what to do. On this basis you may feel that I’m a proponent of leadership and an opponent of management, but that’s not the case.

As project managers we need to be rational and task-oriented but we must also be mindful of people and understand how to best engage each individual. In other words, our challenge is to manage tasks and lead people.

Are real leaders those who lead from the front?

Within the spectrum of management and leadership there are different styles that we can use.  With some styles we lead from the front and with others we lead from behind. Think of a leader for a moment – someone who you consider to be respected and skilled at what they do. It may be that this person is good at taking the lead and setting the direction for the team.

If the leader is very visible and dominant we would say that they lead from the front. They show the way and they direct the troops.

People who lead from behind are less visible. They are not the front-runners but the ones who are good at mobilizing others. Think of someone you know who is good at empowering others to make their own decisions. Those who lead from behind are typically good at asking questions and guiding the rest of the team. They don’t have a big need to be seen as the decision-maker. On the contrary they value team participation and decentralized decision-making.

Years ago I used to feel that real leaders were those who were leading from the front. They were the strong leaders who were decisive and who knew the best way forward. I tried to be that kind of leader, but didn’t always succeed. I didn’t feel I had sufficient subject matter knowledge to direct the troops. I had to rely on other team members to set the direction.

Today I see my reliance on others as a good thing. Strong leaders need to know when it’s time to step back and make space for others.

How can you practice your visionary leadership style?

We have to be careful not to see the world of leadership as black and white. With leadership there are no simple answers and no size fits all. All leadership styles have a time and a place. Leading from the front is extremely valuable when the project is being kicked off. The team needs direction and they need clarity on what the project’s objectives are.

Project managers may quickly lose credibility if they are not able to swiftly convey the vision to the team. The more strategic the project is, the more important it is that the project leader is connected with the vision and has the ability to convey what senior management and the project sponsor want to achieve.

If you would like to practice becoming a more visionary leader, try to spend time perfecting an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short 90-second pitch that you can use to convey the essence of your project to a stakeholder or a new team member who you meet in the elevator.  The idea is to highlight the purpose, vision and benefits of the project in a way that makes the stakeholder respond: “that sounds interesting. Tell me more! “ You want to engage and inspire the other person and make them feel that the project is worthwhile. Visionary leaders lead from the front and are excellent at conveying the bigger picture.Project Leadership

The directional leader, who gives clear instructions and tells others what to do, can also be perceived as a strong leader who leads from the front. If the vision and objectives of the project are clear it can be tempting to overuse the directional style – especially if the project manager understands the subject matter.

I work with many project managers who have a technical background as engineers. When they lead a project they are typically very solution-oriented and often know what it takes to move the project forward. They are strong role models who lead the project from the front. This can be a great advantage if the project is behind schedule, if there is a crisis, if the team lacks knowledge or if the stakes are high. But if overused, the directional style can discourage team members from contributing and taking ownership.

To get the best from the team, project managers need to learn to also lead from behind and give the team space to step forward.

How can a project manager lead from behind?

When the project manager leads from behind they can appear to the outside world as being less visible. But internal to the team they influence team members to make the right decisions and to move the project forward. How do they do that? By ensuring that objectives are clear and by coaching the team to find the best way forward.

In other words, they provide direction on “what” needs to get done but allow the team to find the “how”. Asking challenging questions of the team is one of the main ways in which a project manager can lead from behind.

If you would like to become better at leading from behind, practice your coaching skills. When a team member approaches you and asks about your opinion or your direction, resist the temptation to give advice and instead see it as an opportunity to coach them. Ask them what they would like to achieve, what they have already tried and what some options might be for resolving the issue.

At first the team member might just want you to give them the answer, but with time they will come to appreciate the trust, autonomy and influence that comes with this leadership style.

Leading from behind is an approach, which is best introduced gradually on a project. As the project starts out, there is a need for direction and guidance. But as the knowledge and skill level of the team increases, you can safely begin to take a step back and lead fromCoaching Skills for Project Managers behind. It’s worth bearing in mind, that as you begin to take a step back you may face some resistance from senior management or from the client.

As far as they are concerned, they want a visibly strong leader who is in control, who can answer their queries and who can quickly solve problems. Don’t let this pressure deter you from leading your project team from behind. It is possible to give your clients what they need and at the same time encourage team members to step forward and make decisions.

On strategic and complex projects it’s essential that the project manager can lead from the front as well as from behind.

The complexity may be so great that there is a big need for direction. But at the same token the high complexity levels mean that there is also a need for all team members to contribute, to question, to innovate, and to solve problems. On large projects it’s impossible for the project managers to have all the answers, and pretending that they do can be very dangerous.

Enjoyed the article? Find out more about managing strategic projects with the Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme.



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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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