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Project Leadership, Episode 2: the Bad News Manager

In this series of posts on Project Leadership, I try to explore what it is, why it is worth and how to develop as a project leader – while not renouncing to the assets of a good project manager. This week : why being a project leader smoothes the perception and the handling of project setbacks.


Why is leadership so important for project management?

Among many reasons, a key one is that a project concentrates an incredible source of possible setbacks, issues, crisis, and so on – if managing a project would only imply filling-in MS Project files, nobody would need project managers. Especially in adverse conditions good leadership becomes a success factor for the project.

Allow me to bring some observations from my own experience as a project and programme manager.
Working on large and complex projects with large risk exposure, I remember that when things went right and smoothly, it mostly involved analytical and technical thinking – at least conscientiously. But as soon as something in the project went wrong, most of the personal resources I needed to mobilize came from the « Emotional Intelligence » (EI) area – and I clearly felt it. I remember a particular time when my helicopter programme faced severe issues in various areas, and one evening I came back home with the feeling of being literally a « Bad News Manager »: the schedule would slip by several months, end-users would have degraded capability for a while, customers were heavily unhappy, and the team was wondering if we would ever bounce back.

The “bad news” project cycle

Looking retrospectively at what happened, I have found out that the scheme was indeed more or less always the same: before a major problem stepped in, the whole project team had to endure stress and pressure to achieve targets, then came a major blow with all consequences, and finally we had to recover to get back to “usual business” again, and the cycle would start one more time before the next setback. I tried to sum up it as follows from the perspective of the project manager:


 It is striking to notice the large proportion of emotional intelligence that is mobilized in a cycle like this, among others: 1. resistance towards pressure, target orientation, 2. self-confidence and self-control, adaptability, influencing, organizational awareness, inspiration, team work, 3. achievement, resilience, optimism.
As no risk management system, even a perfect one, can exclude the possibility to face issues, a project leader will for sure perform better under those adverse circumstances than a pure manager – thus leading to a greater project performance for the company. Even better, an inspired project leader can leverage such adversity and transform it into an opportunity – although it will also require a good deal of analytical foundation to capture lessons learned, confirming the obvious assumption that one can hardly make a good project leader from a bad project manager...

Developing self-confidence

So, what if you want to develop your self-management area, and in particular your self-confidence and optimism to bounce back from setbacks? Both are of paramount importance to resist to the high stress level and survive to (and ultimately enjoy!) the bumpy and unsecure life in a project.
You may first remember that any challenge will make you stronger, and welcome it (ever heard of "Ce qui ne te tue pas te rend plus fort" in French companies?). Although true, that is a bit thin.
Regarding optimism, I will describe in another post how to apply the techniques of “learned optimism” as developed by M. Seligman. As far as self-confidence is concerned, it is essential to find some time for introspection, and draw a honest but positive picture of all what you can:
- First, make a list of your top 5 greatest professional and/or personal successes which you are the most proud of, and where you obviously overcame adverse situation (time pressure, high stress, setbacks, …). It can be achieving a project, organizing an event, closing a deal...anything where you showed your talents.
- Then, choose one, which you believe reflects well the variety of your skills. Now write the story of this success (typically, one page). Writing is essential to help you engrave your achievements on your memory. You can describe what you have achieved and how, underlining your personal resources which have enabled you to meet the challenge. Consider also the point of view of others (stakeholders, project parties, family or friends if it was personal) that benefited from your success (e.g. : what the company gained, what it brought to the project sponsor, …).
- Once it is done, read it aloud and look at all what you can! If you wish, you can repeat this personal story-telling for another successful situation.
- In a last optional step, you can take a slightly more academic posture, and try to list all your talents and skills which you possess and that were evidenced in that situation. For your EI skills, you can for instance cross-check your story with the “official” EI skill-list from the Emotional Intelligence Consortium.

Yes you can

Now, step back a few seconds, and consider what you have actually already achieved – many things indeed, and this is even written! Don’t you already possess many talents and skills which will help you to overcome project setbacks? Aren’t you already prepared to face new challenges? Of course, one always wishes to have as many talents as possible. But self-confidence, when built on facts and not only wishful thinking, becomes a strong asset in the wildest tempests- as illustrated by the beautiful words of R. Kipling (“If”):

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
[…] Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

To finish with the “Bad News Manager” myth, let me underline that Project Leadership is (fortunately!) not only about being able to handle issues, but also about opening to others and helping them growing. That is even the most rewarding and fulfilling part of that job - a good reason to develop leadership and have some more posts on that.

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