4 Leadership Styles that Will Improve Your Game

Friday Apr 9th 2010 by Ron Ponce
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There are four distinct leadership styles you can use in almost any situation to get the job done, writes PMPlanet columnist Ron Ponce of Fog City Consulting.

What are we doing? How are we going to achieve that? These are just a couple of the questions that members of any project team ask during the life of a project. The same can be said for members of management looking to see how their initiative is going to make it from an idea to a reality.

As project manager we are chartered with not only creating a plan, but getting the team on the same page by providing the leadership necessary to get this group of individuals to act and deliver as one. Like most things, there is no single style of leadership that must be followed in order to be a successful leader for your project. There are many different styles the can be leveraged and in most cases those styles are put into action depending on the situation at hand.

In observing the best project managers over the last 20 years, I have noted some common themes in the successful application of different leadership styles. The themes coalesce around four types that I will characterize as the following:

  • Task Master
  • Advocate
  • Captain
  • Parent

Let's explore each in turn:

The Task Master

“Bring out the whip and let it rip,” says Brian a senior project manager for a financial services firm in Boston. Being a task master may sound like you are evil and overbearing person, but in reality there are times a team needs to put their collective heads down and get things done. In those cases, a project manager will need to make sure that there are no distractions taking away from that focus.

As a task master, you want to provide an environment where each team member has blinders on in order for them to focus on their deliverables. With this leadership style, it is essential to make sure the plan is clear and the responsibilities are well known by each team member. Each project and each organization will define and determine what shape those blinders take. It can be from moving the team into a single location to be focused, daily group check-ins like a Daily Scrum, or a daily personal reminder by you as the project manager to each team member to see where they stand with their deliverable. Your focus as the task master is the plan and keeping it moving forward while making sure any distractions are dealt with quickly.

There can and should be a positive nature to the being a successful task master. It is hard and not everyone is going to like the enhanced attention that is focused on each member of the team. If it done without malice, as a result of poor project management, or out of spite, being a task master can produce successful results.

There is a delicate balance that you need to be aware of as a task master. The dark side is always close at hand and is easy to slip into if you don’t keep it in check. There are two aspects to the dark side that I will call out. The first comes from a personal place where you are taking advantage of your position to make life miserable for certain members of the team or the entire team. As you can imagine, there is not much good that can come out of being this type of task master. The best way to avoid this path is to remember that the project is all about business and it is not personal. If the situation is truly personal, then don’t try to deal with it alone. Get help from your management and human resource department. You don’t want others or the project to suffer because of few bad folks.

The other aspect of the dark side generally falls squarely on you as a project manager and that is the result of having to be a task master because of poor project management. Teams or individuals never respond well to having a task master, but especially when they are not at fault.

Projects always have moments where things slip and original commitments are at risk. What needs to be avoided is having those risks not be as a result of poor planning or leadership by you as the project manager. This is your failure and not the team. If it is true, then be honest with the team on what happened and what needs to be done to get back on track. They will not like it but will be more willing to help out if they know the full story.

The Advocate

As a leader it is important to encourage and to provide positive reinforcement, especially during long and complex projects. The advocate style of leadership is more than being a cheerleader for the team. It is about being there for the team in order to pick them up when the need help ― to provide that pat on the back when things go well, and to have an open door when there is a need to talk. The advocate is one of the most unselfish styles as it is truly about putting the team and their needs first.

To be a successful advocate starts with creating the right environment. Making sure at the start of the project that you have done your best as the project manager to determine the needs and wants that will be required for the team to execute. Examples of what makes up an encouraging environment include making sure they have the right tools, the right work space location, the correct user name and password, a strong and reasonable vision, a plan on how to achieve objectives, and letting the team know there is someone there who is looking out for them.

The advocate is also looking for opportunities to promote the team and team members not only within the project team but also outside with management. As project manager, you are generally placed in many situations that allow you to publicly represent the team and the project. As the advocate, you can begin to share that spotlight with other members of the team as appropriate. The ability to present, run a meeting, or be the featured speaker because are great examples of how to provide opportunities for others to shine. The other is to call out the key accomplishments of others. This not only provides a nice feeling but it also shows management that the team is deep and successful.

The Captain

There are times within many projects where a team or individuals require more than just encouragement, they need direction. The role of the captain is to gently guide a person or team in a general sense so they can stay on track, but still allowing the guided to to do things in their own way. As captain, your leadership comes through in the direction that is set, in helping provide the boundaries for the team, and to act a bit like the police―keeping watch over them to be able to make any course corrections that may be needed take place.

The captain leadership style is an active one. Although you are not explicitly providing the exact steps that need to be executed, you are still required to know what is going on at a detailed level. If you are truly hands off and willing to just be provided updates, then you are more at risk for failure.

The Parent

Finally, there is ability to truly act independently as a person or team because the privilege has been earned as a result of strong sense of trust and a first hand knowledge of past successful track record. As a leader, you are more like a parent in that you have done your best to provide the person and team with the tools that they will need to be successful. You have also been able to see firsthand during different efforts or mentoring sessions how the person or group will think and react.

You are the parent seeing their children off into the world knowing that they are ready to act independently, but you are still interested in hearing reports about how they are doing as well as being there to provide any support necessary to help them succeed.

The parenting style of leadership is the ultimate in that you are truly allowing the person or group to determine everything on their own. You are basically providing the problem statement and maybe an expectation as to when it needs to be solved, and that is it. You are being provided updates, but not taking or being asked to take any role that may influence the person or group in any way as they go about resolving the situation.

Given that lack of hands on participation, the parenting style is not one that all project managers are comfortable with using. There is a lot of time and history that goes into building a relationship with the person or group that allows for this style to work. Yet, from a project manager’s perspective, having a team that can be trusted provides a huge advantage in that it is like having an additional set of arms and legs ― you are freed from worry and can focus fully on other items. The parenting style is, however, more involved than just delegating a task. The two are similar in that another person or group is taking on work that you assigned but that is where the similarity ends.

When work is delegated in most cases there is still an active requirement to keep on top of the work. This will require some portion of your time but nowhere near as much time as if you were leading the effort. Leveraging the parent style of leadership as is total abdication to the person or group to determine their own process towards the solution. As project manager, you are totally free of any time commitment because of that trust.

In the end, providing leadership is not an easy task in part because each situation is different. There is no one style that will always work regardless of the situation. These different styles provide a project manager with options that can be used in specific situations to better achieve the end objectives of the project. The key is to determine which style will work best for you at what time.

Ron Ponce is president of Fog City Consulting, a San Francisco-based program and project management consulting firm, which specializes in organizational infrastructure, project delivery, and professional development and training services. He can be reached at rponce@fogcityconsulting.com

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