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Why Projects Succeed: Project Leadership Part 4
By Roger Kastner

Why Projects Succeed is a blog series in which Slalom Business Architect Roger Kastner sheds light on key factors behind the art and science of successful project management and invites readers to discuss how they apply across different environments.

In this series on Project Leadership, I wrote about the principles of Project Leadership Part 1, and Part 2, and highlighted how these principles make for great Project Leaders. In my last post, Becoming a Project Leader vol 1, the third article in this Project Leadership series, I wrote about the key step in becoming a Project Leader is to be intentional about the little things that set the foundation for becoming a leader. In this article, I want to highlight the focus or attitude a Project Manager should have when becoming a leader.

In some organizations, “leadership” is thought of as something that comes with a title and in most environments in times of status quo, the organizational behavior supports those with the titles. But when an organization or project is in crisis, what matters is not the title but the results that are created by those who demonstrate leadership skills. To be sure, entitlements and labels do not make great leaders.

For the individual who aspires to become a true leader, they need to understand the principles of leadership and be intentional about how they create the moments and relationships that build trust and perceptions. But, as with many things in life, focusing on what you want instead of what it will take to get what you want leads to unsuccessful attempts. Clearly, for Project Managers who want to become great Projects Leaders, they should not focus on the attainment of titles. More to the point, they shouldn’t really focus on “leadership” either, but instead they should focus on “followership.”

Let me give you a couple of examples of the difference. Kobe Bryant has scored 50 points or more in a basketball game. Ghandi spoke eloquently and persuasively about non-violence. And Gene Krantz put all the smart engineers in one room when Apollo 13 had “a problem.” However, without “followers,” (i.e., the other Laker players to score the remaining points, the millions of Hindis to practice non-violence, and the engineers that brainstormed the solutions), the Lakers lose, India may still be a colony, and Apollo 13 would have been a documentary and not a heartwarming a movie.

While the distinction between leadership and followership might only matter and only be witnessed when projects are in crisis, the important lesson for the aspiring Project Leader is the time to think about cultivating followership is not once a crisis happens, but to thinking about how to cultivate it starting on day one. To put it another way, by focusing on followership the aspiring leader must focus on the needs and interests of the individuals that they want to inspire. To do so, the aspiring leader must put aside his or her needs and interests (aka “ego”).

The principles of leadership that I outlined previously provide opportunities in themselves for Project Managers to create followership.

In order to successfully advocate a vision, that vision must first tie the initiative’s objectives with, or at least accommodate, the interests and goals of the individual team members. To do that, the Project Leader will need to understand the goals and interests of each individual team member, and then be able to articulate a connection between the project objectives and the personal ones. Someone who is focused on followership will focus the creation of the “vision” based on how it relates and inspires to the individual.

If one is setting expectations appropriately, being realistic about capabilities and competencies must enter the calculation. Only by setting realistic expectations will Project Leaders be identified as having good judgment and a pragmatic understanding of what’s possible. Sure, we should have all stretch goals, but most of us know what’s 10% outside of our comfort zone and what’s 100%, and the person who sets and helps us achieve that additional 10% is someone who we will follow.

Before followership can occur, a Project Leader must focus on building trust , on day one and continue by being consistent and integral. Ensuring that individuals get to see a Project Leader demonstrate the core principles of Trust, as outlined by Stephen M.R. Covey in Speed of Trust as integrity, intent, capabilities, and results, will facilitate the engendering of trust in that Project Leader. Always “working behind the scenes” will hurt the development of followership. Just like back in math class when you were rewarded for showing your work, a Project Leader will be entrusted with followership by the individuals on the project team by demonstrating those core principles of trust.

Followership is also rooted in respect, and when a Project Leader can professionally foster joint accountability, the individuals on the team will respect that leader. By identifying when individuals are not keeping their commitments and then helping them recover and achieve their deliverables while maintaining professional courtesy, i.e., not humiliating or embarrassing anyone, a Project Leader gains the respect of those on the team. Of course, not all commitments can be held, but creating a culture of fear and punishment does not engender followership, only compliance. And when was the last time you felt allegiance to a leader who also made you feel compliant?

One of the best ways I’ve seen Project Leaders create a culture of execution, accountability, and followership, is by giving recognition that is specific and tied to the individuals’ interests and contributed to the goals of the project. It seems counter-intuitive that recognition leads to people holding them more accountable, but in my experience it is absolutely true. And we all appreciate being acknowledged for our contributions in honest ways and in real terms. In doing so, the Project Leader shows that they are paying attention, and they appreciate our efforts. We like the positive strokes, and since it is rare, we tend to want to follow those people who give them.

The only constant in life is change, as cliché as it is we know it to be true on projects. In the case of unplanned change, Project Leaders embrace change, rather than fight or deny it, because while it demonstrates being realistic and flexible, when done correctly it showcases leadership talent in the resolution of the issue causing the change and the ability to marshal the troops to course correct nimbly and accurately. In the case of creating a positive change, Project Leaders need to know how to soften the target so affected individuals can share the vision and are receptive to also embracing the change that is intended. In doing so, the Project Leader creates followers for the vision, and in adoption of the change.


Being a leader is not for the aggrandizement of the self but for the greater good of the team or organization. Sure, some of us crave the limelight and love the praise and recognition that comes with a job well done. Those are symbols of great individual achievements. Leadership, however, can never be the goal in and of itself, because to attain leadership requires a focus on the individuals on the team and achieving team results.

By focusing on creating followership, rather than the attainment of a leadership title, the aspiring Project Leader will put the interests of the team members, stakeholders, and end users first, and in doing so should garner the trust, respect, and loyalty of those he or she serves.

What do you think?

I would love to hear what you think about this series on Project Leadership and its importance on successful projects. Please join the conversation by posting a comment.

Reprinted with permission from Slalom Consulting – © 2012 Slalom Consulting

Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects. You can read more articles from the series on “Why Projects Succeed” here.

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