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Jim Owens: Leadership, a few thoughts


In times of battle some unlucky leaders have had to sacrifice the lives of a few to save many. If you were the husband, wife, parent or child of one of the sacrificed “few”, would you say the leader did “the right thing”? And saying that leaders are “born not made” is a cop-out. Some people are born with natural abilities, but everyone can improve with training and practice.

I believe a true leader inspires others to greatness; through their direct influence they help others achieve what those individuals thought was impossible, and they can encourage a team to perform much better than a group of individuals can. So in many ways a leader is like a coach. The star of the Tarzan movies in the 1930’s and 40’s was a very powerful man called Johnny Weissmuller. But before he was Tarzan he was an Olympic swimmer. He won five gold medals and three bronze medals in 1924 and 1928, in the 100, 400, and 800-metre freestyle relay, and another bronze medal as a member of the U.S. water polo team. Obviously his huge strength gave him a big advantage over his competitors – and yet not so many years later, teenage girls were breaking his records. Obviously they weren’t more powerful than Johnny – the difference was in the technique and the coaching – the leadership, if you like.

Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, boil down to, “You get what you expect from people.” If we think of everyone as basically selfish then we will always try to manipulate them in order to get what we want. Hey! Doesn’t that make us selfish? What does a leader do then? People need to be recognised and praised. Find a reason to praise your team members privately each week and ensure that no-one misses out. But the praise itself should be spontaneous and not formulaic. I believe in encouraging everyone, not praising for the sake of it, but everyone does something that’s worthy of praise. Communicate often with your team; give them the “big picture” and where they fit it.

A leader influences and inspires others to believe in themselves and to follow the vision. This implies strongly that a leader must know, understand and believe the vision themselves. Try to work out what has inspired you, and then you can inspire others, Emotions are a powerful motivator, so a leader needs to be passionate to help others “feel” the vision. A leader is not driven by their ego, because if they are, then they will inspire others to follow them, instead of the vision – so a leader is a signpost for where people should go. You must be credible and honest, you have to “walk the talk”, because people tend to do as you do, rather than what you say to do.

Whilst leadership is not about ego, a leader still needs to stand out from the crowd – if you’re Mr/Ms Average you’re not going to inspire many people, even if you’re good at your job. Genuineness by definition cannot be faked. A true leader has to be compassionate as well as passionate, so make to effort to develop a relationship with your staff (usual provisos for appropriate relationships of course).

The team will solve many of it’s own problems with peer pressure etc. For example, time keeping, dress standards, interpersonal conflict and so on, but remember – peer pressure can be a good servant but a damaging and unforgiving master, so you’ll need to keep an eye on it. A leader is expected to solve “higher level” problems such as budgetary, emergencies, compliance, need for unique expertise or when the team can’t resolve an issue. But beware of becoming the person to whom everyone brings problems; your leadership type can and should evolve with the team; following a continuum from autocratic-biased to free-rein-biased styles (analogous to development of the parent-child relationship over time).

Leaders lead by example, but they also know when is the right time to push. This is most obvious in “take charge” leaders, exemplified by the likes of Churchill, they know what to do in a crisis, and are not afraid to do it, and can rally people to the cause – because they live the vision. A leader is expected to be a stabilising influence when times are tough, and be able to deal with any cliché that may arise. You need to evaluate your team’s current situation and assess what is needed to progress the team to a future vision. A problem with Churchillian leaders as role models is that they get dumped from office with the crises is over, and this can be true of any single-skilled leader. A true leader needs the ability to change leadership styles to suit the team and the need. They need to be able to handle peacetime as well as war.

So a leader is many of these things, as well as being a manager. Often as a project manager and leader you will find yourself doing the “best” thing rather than the “right” thing because you have to do all of the above and still get your project in on time and on budget. Sometimes this means “biting the bullet”, “making the hard decision”, or flogging a dead cliché. But if you follow the leadership path, rather than the strict management path, you are much more likely to earn the respect of loyalty of your team members, customers and other stakeholders along the way, and (I believe) end up with a better project overall. —

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