Association for Project Management
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How to adapt as a project leader

Blog posted by: Sishosonke Dlamini, 08 Jun 2022.

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One of the important skills a project manager needs is being able to lead. Leadership skills help you to navigate the project team to meet project goals and ultimately deliver an organisational strategy.

Being a different leader for different project stages

It is important for a project manager to adapt between different leadership styles for different situations and circumstances. For example, at the very start of the projects I manage for Transnet Port Terminals in South Africa, I let the project team decide on project conducts and rules so that the team takes ownership for the rules established. My leadership style is one that is inclusive.

While I allow the team to make their own project rules before the project actually starts, once it does begin, I am generally autocratic in the way I lead the project because in this stage of the project the team tends to be all over the place. After the formation of a team, there is often a lot of conflict between the members, with some in particular trying to prove their worth. It is for this reason that I need to put my foot down with the project team members.

From an autocratic to a democratic style (and back again)

Once the project team gets used to one another I switch to a democratic leadership style, allowing the team to make their own decisions. However, I still meet with the project team to guard them against any conflicts that can set the project back. When the project team is high performing and effective, I continue with a participative leadership style because it’s at this stage that the team runs on autopilot – although I still ensure that the team remains focused on the objectives of the project.

If a new member joins the team when it is productive and delivering well, I change once again to an autocratic leadership style because often the team members start with conflicts again, and my duty as a project manager is to keep the team focused on the project’s goal.

In a project’s close-out, one would think that the team would continue to be effective but frequently the team loses focus at this stage and most team members feel a bit lost. A project manager needs to set the direction and keep the team motivated to steer it towards the closure of the project. The project manager can keep the team motivated by commemorating the project’s success by recognising the team’s hard work and valuable time spent on it.

There is no one leadership style that that fits all the stages of a team’s development - a project manager’s leadership styles adapts as the team evolves. Even with an experienced and competent team, a project manager assumes an autocratic leadership style in the beginning while the team forms. Once the team grows together, a project manager employs a style that fits the stage the team is in at a particular point.

Leading projects as objectives change

In my organisation, projects go through different phases - from front-end loading phases 1 to 4. As an example, front-end loading 3 (FEL 3) is for detailed designs and preparation of FEL 3 documents by different disciplines. There is gate review at the end of FEL 3 by an independent panel to determine if the project is ready for front-end loading 4 (FEL 4), which is construction. At the gate review the project can get a green light to proceed to the next phase or a red light to rework for another gate review. FEL 3 and FEL 4 objectives are different. In FEL 3 there is little room for errors and the project team members are expected to be effective and efficient at this stage.

The project manager in FEL 3 can largely be a directing leader who is results driven to assure progression. In FEL 4, a project manager can adapt their leadership styles to fit the team’s progression. The same project manager can manage multiple projects in different phases with different teams and objectives. The changing of objectives of one project from one phase to another and in different projects demonstrates a greater need for flexible leadership.

The leadership style of a project manager impacts the success of the team, and the project manager needs to choose the most suitable leadership style for a specific circumstance to produce a successful project.

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About the Author

Sishosonke Dlamini

Sishosonke Dlamini, Senior Project Manager at Transnet Port Terminals in South Africa


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