Leadership Challenges in Project Management

A large body of knowledge already exists about the leadership characteristics of the ideal manager or leader.  There is less, however, relating to the leadership challenges a PM faces, and how to address them.

The leadership challenge

What is a Leader?

Being a Leader is a lot more than just having a technical mastery of project management and the subject material of the project.  It requires a range of skills, from sales to an industrial psychologist, to a spymaster, to a mind reader, and to be a pragmatist.  It also from time to time requires the hide of a rhino.

Put simply, projects are about things and people.  It is fair to say that the most challenging problems a leader will face will be those involving people.  Issues will arise as the project proceeds, and it is the role of the leader to keep the project team motivated, productive, and confident.

The specific challenges will be different for different projects and different application areas, but some common threads apply to all.

How Does a Leader Lead?

There are lots of studies with different opinions about how a leader can get a group of individuals to act jointly and achieve a common goal. But everyone agrees that productive leadership can do the following:

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1. Motivate

A team must be motivated towards achieving the project goal. It is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that team motivation is present.

2. Inspire

A true leader leads by example, nit by dictate. People will follow others they feel inspired by but will do so much more reluctantly if simple ordered to.  Micro-management very rarely works.

3. Encourage and Support

Leaders are, in a sense like sports coaches, providing encouragement and support to the team.

4. Guide

A good leader is a mentor and guide to team members.

Leadership Challenges In Project Management

1. Leader Versus Manager

A Project Manager must choose whether to be a leader or manager.  A project will need both at different times.  The difference is not fully understood by many and will need to be communicated.

The leadership challenge is keeping the project team motivated and happy using the skills of both leadership and management

2. The Peter Principle

Sometimes people are promoted to a project management post without having acquired the necessary skills.  While they may have been an excellent team member, this does not automatically make them a good team leader.  The skillsets for each role are different.

An integral part of any project is people’s development, and that must include the PM.

3. Support, or lack of it

Support must work in both directions.  Just as a leader provides support and mentorship to team members, a leader needs the same from their peers and a network of supporters.  The challenge is to keep the support structure intact and functional.

4. The Project Environment

Because of people, sometimes a project can be challenging, not for technical reasons, but for peripheral reasons.  The challenge is to identify the constraints on the project, often caused by people, and removing those constraints.

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5. Personal Limitations

All PMS, especially new PMs need confidence in their ability to deliver their mandate. If the PM lacks that confidence, leadership is diluted, and the project will suffer as a result.

The Impact of Leadership Challenges

Challenges have consequence and they can cause your leadership if you’re not careful. These are some of the things that you should be careful about:

1. Increased Management

Often an immediate response to a project going off track is to increase oversight and management, in short micro-manage.  The team will not appreciate it, and it may backfire.

2. Lack of Support

Because of the increased micromanagement workload, or simply withdrawing, the team does not get the support they need to pull the project back on track.

3. Withdrawal

If a PM pulls back from the project, several things are immediate, including:

  •    Decision Making

The PM delays or is unable to come to a decision.

  •  Avoids Conflict

In every project, from time to time, there is a need for a hard conversation.  A withdrawn PM avoids these.

  • Retreating into a Shell

A withdrawn PM becomes defensive and frustrated, blaming everyone but themselves and refusing to listen to constructive criticism.

How to Overcome Common Project Leadership Challenges?

The list above looks daunting, but those challenges can be overcome:

  • Define the PM’s role, and if necessary refine or adjust it.
  • Be open to criticism and suggestions.
  • Know the value you bring to the table.
  • Make sure that the team understands the rationale behind the project and how it fits into the overall scheme of things. Role-playing may be useful, but defining the vision behind the project is essential.
  • Develop the team by asking team members to carry out tasks that share responsibilities.
  • Make sure that the PM, yourself, is part of a leadership training program.
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Sonia Kukreja

Written by Sonia Kukreja

I am a mother of a lovely kid, and an avid fan technology, computing and management related topics. I hold a degree in MBA from well known management college in India. After completing my post graduation I thought to start a website where I can share management related concepts with rest of the people.

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