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The Basics of Leadership

The Basics of Leadership

When you first step out in front of a team it’s natural to feel apprehensive. Nervous even. And it’s with good cause. Truth is, in the digital realm, leaders need followers a lot more than followers need leaders. So why should anyone follow you?

A great starting point for any project manager in leading a team is in finding villains, vision and being assured of victory

Villains

The success of your project directly impacts your team’s ability to provide for their family in the future. And the team knows that you ‘re going to ask them to sacrifice their home life in some way to make your project a success.

And make no bones about it – the people who work for you put their marriages, their relationships, their kids, their homes and their future in your hands. That’s what it means to be “in charge”.

So who would ever put their life in your hands for no reason? Certainly not for the pay, that’s for sure, and not just because you’re a fun nice person.

So you need to find the purpose in the project. And it must be a worthy purpose.

Finding a project’s purpose

How many times have you been involved in a project and wondered, “Phew! At least if we fail, it’s not a big deal!” Or said to your team, “Don’t worry – it’s not like we’re changing the world one widget at a time!”

As a leader, if you have, those are poisonous, treacherous thoughts.

Peter Drucker in his treatise, The Practice of Management, talks about the “social purpose” of every corporation. That people buy things because they believe that the good or service will make their lives better in some way.

But who wants to make a personal sacrifice to make widget 2.0 – even if it is a little better than widget 1.9?

Who goes to a party and drops the line, “I’m involved in widget 2.0!”?

It’s not enough to build widget 2.0. It may not even be enough for the team to get fired if they fail to build widget 2.0.

The social purpose of widget 2.0 must be great.

It must slay an important social villain like hunger or despair or pain or suffering. It must be an admirable and impressive villain to call forth the greatest heroes of your age to meet it and even attempt to slay it.

Your job as a leader is to make the case to your team that you have a truly worth villain. That your project is going to make a difference and communicate those villains with passion and persuasion. To infect everyone you meet with the greatness of the villain and the admirable necessity of the project.

Vision

You have to have a plan. And that plan has to be a good plan. You can’t “have a plan to get a plan”. You need a plan that people can believe in and get behind.

Remember, you are asking people to makes sacrifices to defeat some great villain. You better know why you need them, how they’re going to help achieve the mission and what you need from them. Or else, they might as well just stay home and watch you ride out to your doom alone.

So spend time with your architects, leads and designers in the pitch process before the project even launches. You had to calculate the project scope and cost based on something, right? Well, that “something” is the plan you sold. And it did get sold, right? So at least the client and your executives believe in your plan. You should too.

If it’s not your plan, you’re not the leader

That’s ok – wolf packs shift leadership based on the specific problem and the wolf with the best skills to solve it. You can still be in command and not be the leader. If you find yourself in that position, have the courage to recognize that and subordinate yourself to the leader who’s plan you’re going to follow.

That’s hard but ultimately, if you don’t understand the plan, how can you make sure that it’s done? How can you make the sacrifices necessary to achieve success?

If you find yourself “on the outside”, you must sell the leader to the team whose plan you’re going to follow. Your job is to “prepare the ground” so that the plan has the best chanc30e of success. You must believe in it yourself and you must commit yourself to the plan with all the passion of a True Believer. You must be ok with being a digital manager in this area and not a digital leader.

Victory!

You must convince everyone, every day, at every moment, that victory is assured. You MUST guarantee it and you must believe (even in the face of doubt) that the plan will work and the villain will fall.

Team dysfunction starts the moment you let that doubt in. The moment when you stop believing in the plan and start casting about for another. Symptoms also include downgrading the villain (you’re preparing to “cushion the blow” when you fail).

You must not let doubt consume you. Because you are responsible for victory. It’s not enough to dare the difficult. You must also achieve the impossible.

Otherwise, it’s just a suicide mission.

Your job as leader is to convince the team that following the plan is the path to victory. And that victory is only going to come about from the fanatic adherence to the plan. And that the plan is going to work. And that achieving the mission is important.

Risk

A quick note about risk. Risk is your luck.

If you take a bunch of risk and it pays off, you’re lucky. If you take a bunch of risk and it bites you, you’re unlucky. Followers follow the lucky and avoid the unlucky. Almost without reason.

So how do you get lucky? By seeing the difference between fear, price and stupid.

  • Fear is something unreal that has high severity and low probability.
  • Stupid is something real – it has high probability and severity.
  • Price is something unknown that you may or may not have to pay. It has low probability and low severity.

So, don’t be stupid, ignore fears and be prepared to pay a price if you have to.

How does this create the impression of luck?

  • Because you’re bold and your followers are afraid – you can achieve things that they think are not possible.
  • Because you’re not stupid things can never really go horribly bad.
  • Because you’re prepared to pay any price, every price you don’t have to pay is a boon.

In short, you are more successful than anyone thinks you should be. So you’re lucky.

Project management is about far more than managing people on a team to deliver a project. As project managers, we’ve got an opportunity to take a position of leadership, to frame our project in such a way that it becomes work that people really care about, and to serve the team by providing vision, autonomy, and capitalizing on momentum. It requires a vision and belief that victory is possible and a plan for getting there.

What do you think?

What do you think? What are the basics of leadership? I’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on leadership in digital project management. Join the conversation below and let us know what you’re thinking!

James Birchall

About James Birchall

James Birchall is a software systems developer at InterTalk Critical Information Systems. He’s happiest writing challenging software systems.

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