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Lead, Follow, Or Leave
By Simon Jackson

It was Thomas Paine who said we should lead, follow, or get out of the way. Following is rarely considered a leadership skill but I think is one of the most important. Leadership is not the same thing as management, direction, or control. Leadership is a state of mind, not a behavior or tactic. It means applied (adaptive) intelligence to identify options and select the optimal one for the circumstance. The optimal decision may be to let another person take the lead.

This gets interesting when narcissism and politics are involved. Some people are too fragile to cede any power or authority; micro-managers who are incapable of letting go or being wrong. Such people are doomed to repetitive and predictable failure.

In other cases, a leader may feel that because of their accountability they cannot delegate. I understand this argument but if the right (best, optimal) thing to do is to follow, then the only thing to do is to follow.

This is not the same as abdicating responsibility. A manager in a leadership role recognizes that s/he never fully renounces their accountability, even when they elect to follow. Although they have chosen to follow in a particular context, they are accountable for that context and what happens thereafter. Choosing to follow is not a get out of jail free card. The decision to follow is conscious and deliberate.

I was the project manager on an engagement which was traveling smoothly. One of our senior technical staff had done a course on Scrum and suggested we adopt some of the practices he had learned because he thought they would improve our efficiency. Despite rather strident opposition from the Test Manager (which was my responsibility to acknowledge and consider with the Test Manager) I agreed we should try it and gave the Scrum devotee the imprimatur he felt he needed to implement the changes. This didn’t change my overall accountability for the project – scope, schedule, budget, or value for money. But it gave us the advantage of trying something new which might have improved our performance as a team.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it was successful. Without the support of the test team, we struggled to gain traction and gradually returned to our original practices. But the exercise was not a failure and did not damage our effectiveness.

I did note the Test Lead’s unwillingness to follow. Although I understood it – done well the testers’ role is a difficult one and inimical to change, particularly when things are going well – I felt this limited her effectiveness as a leader.

Followship is what distinguishes very effective managers, because they should get so much more from their team. Followship recognizes that no-one is infallible, that everyone has a part to play, and uses the wisdom of the team to maximum effect.

Another distinguishing behavior is the preparedness to stand by one’s principles and be prepared to speak, and follow or leave. If something is wrong or not right, a leader should speak up and say so. This doesn’t mean the leader is right, only that they have an alternative opinion which deserves to be heard. If the leader is not satisfied with the response, they should decide either to follow anyway, or leave. If there is more than one leader in a team, there is no leadership. Leadership may be delegated but not shared.

It is possible to structure teams to allow for particular skills and competence. For example, to have a technical lead, or quality lead. However, the team still requires a single leader with ultimate responsibility and accountability – even for the functional areas led by others. Where does the buck stop? That’s the leader, even if other people lead particular competence areas or streams of work.

Should a project manager be accountable for a project? A project doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is constrained by its environment: budget, resources, access to people, things. A project manager can track scope, schedule, budget, and advocate for more or less of any of those things, but very rarely does a project manager have the power or authority to approve such requests. For example, when I have asked for more time to complete a phase or project, I had to ask the project sponsor or steering committee; it’s not a decision I can make unilaterally (although it is sometimes worth a try! I sometimes use a weekly status report to ‘announce’ a relatively minor change – like an insubstantial schedule slip – that I haven’t negotiated. If no-one challenges the report, it is written therefore it is done!)

Projects do not exist in a vacuum and we cannot expect to have unlimited resources and support, no matter how important the objective. There must be a balance: I’ve seen critical projects fail because their funding dried up at a critical period. But I’ve also seen customers waste vast amounts of resources on failing projects.

Despite this limitation (a function of the real world), the role of project manager is to be accountable for the project. If you don’t like that responsibility, or can’t handle it, don’t become a project manager. A project manager is often the meat in the sandwich, or the scapegoat. As in the axiom: success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan (except the project manager). When things are failing, the project manager will often feel isolated and struggle to get commitment from and engagement with others. When things are going well, everyone gets the credit.

Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Self-serving project managers who take credit for project success can last a while but end up despised by their teams and tend to fail in the long run. Giving credit where it is due is right, as well as practical and useful.

However, it is important for the project manager to acknowledge their own contribution, especially if they want to keep working for the customer. False modesty is not useful or beneficial, but a realistic appraisal of ones effectiveness, which can often be supported by statements from the team, is an important thing to take away from the project, and to share with the customer and your own senior management. A good test of whether you have the we/I balance right is whether you are comfortable sharing the evaluation of your performance with your team.

Simon Jackson is a Senior Project Manager. You can read more from Simon on his blog.

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