Why Traditional Leadership Training Routinely Fail Those Who Desire to Become Outstanding Project Leaders

Since developing a profound interest in the Project Management profession during my first program/project management position with Motorola’s Government and Systems Technology Group in 1979, I have been captivated by the wide-ranging impact and influence an outstanding project leader can have within a project of any type and any size.

Although, it was not until after dozens of project assignments within various industries and organizational cultures that I came to grips with the fact that “All project leaders are project managers, but not all project managers are project leaders.” Throughout my long corporate career, encompassing senior project management and executive roles, I have continued to observe what I now call the “Project Management vs. Project Leadership Disconnect.”

In recent years, I have lectured and written extensively about the power of personal and organizational “leadership” and the advantages that outstanding leaders have over their peers in both career and personal success. My latest book focuses on the stark differences between Project Management and Project Leadership. It also provides some practical self-help tools that can aid in the challenging transformation from “project manager” to “project leader.”

I was delighted when one of the most respected organizations in the project management profession, the Project Management Institute or PMI, developed and began endorsing the PMI Talent Triangle. The PMI Talent Triangle defines the ideal project management skill set as a combination of 1) technical, 2) leadership, and 3) strategic and business management expertise.

I certainly agree that the elevation of leadership skills to the same level as technical skills and business expertise is a big step toward pointing aspiring project managers in the right direction to become outstanding project leaders.

However, my experience as a practitioner, student and professor of leadership development has galvanized my belief that the traditional leadership skills taught in many schools and presented in most workshops “fall short”, and fail those who have a desire to become outstanding project leaders. Although valuable in hierarchical organizational structures, traditional leadership skills fall short of encompassing the complete skill set necessary for a project manager to become an outstanding project leader in a highly-matrixed organizational structure.

Industry and academic experts would agree that in addition to project-specific leadership skills, outstanding project leaders in today’s global, fast-paced business environment must also develop the skills needed to:

1) Visualize and manage the “big” project picture;
2) Neutralize difficult project relationships and strengthen supportive relationships;
3) Gain the trust of key shareholders and the favor of the doubters; and
4) Navigate shifting business strategies in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Acquiring such a combination of insight and intellectual prowess requires more than day-to-day project management experience and team building skills. It requires a personal acceptance of the multi-dimensional demands of outstanding project leadership, a professional commitment to one’s own leadership development and a willingness to learn from the experience of those who have achieved recognition as an outstanding project leader. Finding and retaining such a “mentor” is not an easy task. However, having a professional relationship with someone who has “been there” and who has the ability to effectively share and coach, when needed, can be priceless.

In the following series of articles, I will reveal and discuss a four-step process, which can propel motivated project professionals through the transformation required to become outstanding project leaders.

ERVIN (EARL) COBB is a retired electrial engineer, program/project manager, senior corporate manager and technology executive. His background includes senior leadership positions with Honeywell, Motorola, Reynolds & Reynolds and Wells Fargo Bank. He is the author of seven published books, including “The Official Leadership Checklist and Diary for Project ManagementProfessionals,” “Focused Leadership: What You Can Do Today to Become a More Effective Leader” and “The Leadership Advantage: Do More. Lead More. Earn More.”

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