I started managing projects back in the 60’s when I got out of school as an engineer, designing radio equipment. I had a very strong interest in project management, and when I decided to leave the industry and go into the training and consulting business, I went back to school and earned a Doctorate of Psychology and started teaching leadership skills for project managers. I did that in 1981, so it's been 36 years since I started, and I’ve written 12 books on project management. One of which is called “Project Leadership.” It’s my conviction because I trademarked the term projects or people that if you don’t know how to deal with people skills, you might as well hang it up because that’s what it’s all about. Project leadership is very important to talk about.
Sometimes leadership is excluded in project management. Can you share some insight into why that might be the case?
It was a revelation to me when I first started training. I taught leadership and project management in about three locations, and shortly after I started, we have a recession in the U.S.A. and my enrollments just dried up. It became evident to me that over the years managers would pay for their people to go to nuts and bolts courses in project management. They wouldn’t pay for all of them to go to a leadership course. They’ll pay for executives to go to a leadership course, which has always been a mystery to me because the guys on the firing line, especially project managers need leadership skills more than anybody. They always have a lot of responsibility, and most of the time they have no authority over the people on the team. They can’t use authority to get anything done, they have to persuade, influence, and get people turned onto the project work, or they don’t get anything done.
What are the fundamentals? Have we forgotten them?
I think you’re absolutely right. The actual lack of good leadership is so pervasive that I think people have gotten soured to the whole notion. Part of the reason for this is because leadership traditionally has been taught in MBA programs and things of that nature by college professors, who never lead anything other than a dog. If you look closely, they’ll notice the dog is usually leading the person instead of the other way around. They’re teaching stuff that’s purely theoretical. You learn very quickly once you’re in the trenches that people will tell you to go to hell sometimes and not listen to you. You have to get past some of the human issues that are involved in the workplace, and a lot of times college professors don’t understand that.
The other thing that I’ve found over the years is it’s like the old saying ‘If they can spell the word, they think they know how to teach it.’ We’ve got people teaching it outside of the university realm who also have minimal practical experience. I think the programs have traditionally been so bad that people disregard these courses. You can’t learn leadership through lecture. It’s like riding a bicycle; you have to get on, ride it, and fall off a couple of times before you can master it. It’s skills and performing art.
We have lost track of leadership, and we need it more than anything right now because if you look at Gallup Surveys, they say that only 35% of the people in a workplace are engaged in their jobs. This means that they’re committed to the jobs, interested in it, motivated by the work itself. That’s a dismal figure. I still agree with Edwards Deming--The Quality Guru--who used to say that the problem is always with management. They don’t know how to lead. Managing is not the same thing as leading, so you have a lot of managers out there and very few good leaders. We do need to work on that.
If you were to rewrite “Project Leadership,” now (20 years later) would you make any changes?
There’s a lot of controversy and discussion around millennials or people who were born between 1980 and 2000. Most of my students are millennials and the idea is that millennials are different than previous generations--and they are in many respects. Some of them do have an entitlement mentality, but one of the things I’m convinced of is that most people want to contribute to the workplace and they want to be appreciated for what they do.
I have a Jim Lewis theory that’s supported by the old school of transactional analysis which says that the interaction between a leader and a follower can take on the nature of parent and child. There are four kinds of exchanges between parents and children: nurturing parents/rebellious child, critical parent/rebellious child, nurturing parent/complying child, and critical parent/complying child. If you are a leader and you hook an employee into that rebellious child mode, you don’t get very much done. We have to be cognizant of that relationship with anybody whether it be a millennial, old-timer, baby boomer, etc.
I don’t think the problems with millennials is quite as bad as it’s presented. I think that if a leader cares about their follower, they can overcome whatever conditioning the person has. If they appreciate what they do and value the contributions they make, then I don’t think that engagement problem will be nearly as bad as it’s reported to be.
Millennials and children nowadays especially grew up constantly being rewarded and feeling appreciated. How does this affect leadership now and what are the consequences?
I think it does affect leadership and I do agree that there are some children and young people who come into the workplace, thinking that if they show up, that’s all they have to do. Ben Zander has a Ted Talk that I like in which he talks about the fact that the conductor of the orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He/she depends on empowering the players in the orchestra to perform. He also says it’s the conductor's responsibility to do that and instructors and teachers should take more responsibility for the learning of children and make learning more relevant.
Does influence play an important part of leadership? Should we be trying to influence people more as opposed to leading them?
Let me back up to the basic definition of leadership came from Vance Packard. He said that “leadership is the art of getting other people to want to do something that must be done.” This implies that you’re taking people a place they want to go, so you don’t have to drag someone to a place they already want to go. Where we run into problems is trying to take people to places they don’t want to go and then wondering how you get them to do that.
For example, there are some jobs out there that have to be done that I call drudgery jobs--no one likes them or wants to do it--but the alternative can be a lot worse. We do a lot of those things willingly to get them out of the way, and then we move onto something else. I think it’s appropriate to say ‘we’ve got to do a job that nobody wants to do, but we all have to do it, and I need your help to get this done.’ You might not get much enthusiasm, but you will get more cooperation. If we have to drag people to jobs, then I think we have them in the wrong job.
As an example, I used to teach a course on how to reduce absenteeism and turnover. In North and South Carolina, we have a lot of polture processing. If you talk to those people about their turnover rate, they have anywhere from 60% per year to as high as an astonishing 250% a year. That means your whole workforce turns over two and a half times in one year. Your HR people seem to have good job security, but no one else does. I say well you have some people in the workforce that have been with you for several years and they seem to enjoy coming to work. You have to find out what differentiates them from the people that come on leave two days later and hire more people like that if you can find them. That’s called building a biographical data bank.
Of course, the problem is finding the workforce that consists of that quantity of people. It’s probably difficult to do in small communities. The trick is to put people in jobs that they already want to do, and then you don’t have motivation problems, and you don’t have to drag people around. My saying is that firing begins with hiring. We need to do a better job recruiting people to do the jobs they have for them instead of hiring a pair of hands and hoping we can make it work.
Do good leaders still need the ability to put faith in people?
We call that vision. A good leader has to be able to convey to followers the vision for the future. If that’s not a vision they are trying to achieve, then they are probably in the wrong place. Jim Collins talked about one of the best hiring practices which are to find outstanding people, get them on the bus, and find out where to go with them. I don’t think he quite means that you shouldn’t know what your destination is, but he figured that means what role they need to play. We do need to identify what the company or organization is about and the vision and mission are for the future. Leaders help everyone get there without dragging others along. If you get the right people on the bus, you can go anywhere. The right people will show up no matter what the change is; they will adapt.
Association For Leadership Excellence
One of the things that have bothered me over the years is that the attention to leadership has been not up to par. Most associations, when you join, you get a magazine or a journal every month, and sometimes a boring lecture, but that’s all you get for your money. I’ve always been in the mind that I want to create things that people get engaged with and turned on to. We’re founding an association called the Association For Leadership Excellence to promote good leadership styles. In Fact, we’re going to be doing a training program called leading with heart and purpose. I think you have to have both. You have to engage the heart, and you also have to be sure that the purpose of what you’re doing is clear if you want people to be excited about following.
Sign up here to receive the quarterly Cora Newsletter. Receive tips on project and portfolio management and be first to find out about upcoming events and product enhancements.