There are plenty of smart project leaders. But what is far rarer, is project leadership wisdom.
Wisdom is hard to define. But we know it when we see it. Leadership wisdom is about the cluster of traits that people see in a leader that
If you have Project Leadership wisdom, then people will look to you for guidance and counsel across the widest range of situations. And they will trust you with the sensitive complex, and high profile projects that they know needs that depth of insight and steadiness of touch.
So, in this article, I want to take a look at the substance of what Leadership Wisdom is, and how you can cultivate it.
Without a doubt, project leaders need to be smart. You need to juggle different aspects of your leadership roles whilst retaining currency in all of your areas of technical expertise. You need to have answers – or be able to get them – and you need to motivate and direct the teams who follow you.
Not surprisingly, the study of leadership is one of the biggest interest areas among academics, business people, public servants, trainers, and, of course, Project Managers. New ideas emerge every few years to dominate the debate for a while. And then the next one comes along.
We need these new approaches to handle changing pressures in civil, organizational, and project life:
But is it enough to be smart?
It has always been the case that the leaders that society looks up to with the greatest respect have been labeled with the epithet ‘wise’. In turbulent times like these, when it sometimes feels like our generation truly holds the future in its hands, maybe it is time to go beyond smart.
Maybe our projects need wise leadership. Can we define project leadership wisdom and, more important, can we develop it?
Smart project leaders know how things work and how to get things done, with the resources at their disposal. They have
Leading in that environment takes more: it takes wisdom.
The rules smart leaders follow have been covered in vast libraries of books, journals, training courses, and blog posts. My own contribution is to highlight what I consider the ‘four essentials’ of good project leadership.
If you don’t want to read the full article, here’s a summary…
A team is made up of individuals, And a smart project leader knows how to get the best from each one,
Smart project leaders learn what buttons to push, to win greater motivation and commitment. And they learn when to stop pushing.
They have also learned that the power of the team that follows them is in its diversity and they know how to harness that power, to achieve their goals.
Project leaders need to generate everything from the vision for their project, through a clear plan, to working with their teams to ensure they follow every last detail of that plan is ready.
Plans give confidence and assurance, yet a smart leader also knows that they quickly become out of date unless the leader and their team remain alert to changes and are flexible in their approach.
Creating a common sense of direction for the team is something smart leaders work hard on. This is true, whether it is a handful of individuals working together on a short project, or a dedicated team of professionals working on a multi-year mega-project.
They know when to generate creative tensions and when to unify with clear imperatives, and they can deploy numerous methods for building a cohesive, collaborative team spirit.
All smart project leaders place a lot of weight on the importance of communication. They find out what works best in their context, and they work hard to hone their skills and create processes and a culture that enables everyone to communicate amongst them.
The exception to this, of course, is repressive leaders. I leave it to you to assess how smart they are being!
Another aspect of smart leadership is the ability to select the right leadership approach for a situation. Smart leaders may:
You may also like our article that uses LEAD as an acronym to remind you of four priorities for your Project Leadership.
So, with all of this good guidance about effective project leadership, what is the difference? How can we define Project Leadership Wisdom?
Wisdom requires the experience to understand the real world in all of its breadth and complexity. I’ll contrast this with the narrower context in which you grew smart.
A wise leader must develop a whole array of sustainable qualities that people will look up to. We regard these qualities, cumulatively, as components of
In my book, ‘Smart to Wise’ (US|UK), I identified seven pillars on which wisdom rests. These define, rather nicely, the characteristics of a wise leader. If you can develop yourself in these seven areas, people will increasingly start to perceive you as wise.
They also set out a syllabus for a learning journey that you can go on to develop wisdom in yourself. Smart to Wise does not set out to tell you what is wise, merely the places to look. It offers you a route to greater wisdom.
In the seven sections below, I will contextualize the seven pillars for the domain of project leadership wisdom. For each, I will suggest one route to developing wisdom, from among many.
Self-mastery will always be an important aspect of wisdom and
It is impossible to develop self-mastery without a clear sense of how you come across to other people. Look for opportunities to get feedback – informal or structured – from the people around you to uncover some of the aspects of your personality that you are blind to. People to ask include:
Use this knowledge as the basis for further development.
Developing your ability to see past th
Developing deep psychological insights into yourself and the people around you will enable you to read situations more accurately. This will enhance your perception of the wider context and of the deeper details, and therefore give you a better understanding of what is important and what things are secondary or peripheral.
This is vital in your ability to engage effectively with your stakeholders:
Whatever you are considering, get into the habit of examining it from a series of different perspectives before you try to make an assessment. For example,
Use these different perspectives to build a more thorough understanding of a situation, rather than rushing towards judgment.
Leaders can never remain static. And one thing that characterizes every individual widely regarded as wise is the way they constantly grow and develop their thinking and understanding of the world.
As a project leader, you must commit to this for
This mirrors the way we feel at our most creative on quiet walks, in the shower, or at other ‘non-productive’ times. The creativity you are seeking here is the integration of new experiences into an evolved world-view.
Exemplary conduct must, of
But is this enough?
Wisdom lies in the ability to discern how a visionary insight can become a reality. We follow people when we believe that they can deliver their vision. This is what the ancient Greeks called ‘phronesis’, or practical wisdom.
Exemplary leadership sets an example that others want to follow… ‘inspiring by doing’. Wise leaders know the importance of creating a succession of new leaders who can emulate, rise, and then evolve in their own way. Because leadership wisdom understands the criticality of building sustainable leadership.
Many of the world’s traditions view practicing generosity as a route to righteousness and wisdom. In projects, this is less about giving material support, but more about the personal support you give, in terms of time and commitment.
Perhaps the most powerful form of generosity for a leader to cultivate is spiritual generosity: the virtues of tolerance, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and selflessness. Those who are smart know how to look after themselves and, for those who are merely smart; this is often their first and only priority. Putting yourself to one side opens up the greater objectivity of leadership wisdom.
Governance is a vital aspect of project leadership. And decision-making is a core part of it.
Wise decisions need to be informed by a profound sense of purpose and a commitment to addressing priorities. Wise project leaders must be prepared to abandon past dogmas and engage in an open decision-making process, which is inquiry-led, rather than advocacy-led. This takes time. And good judgment includes the art of patience and the insight to know when the time is right.
Reasoning well is an essential pre-requisite of good judgment, yet critical thinking is rarely taught in our schools. If you can adopt three values and then practice them and hone your skill and comfort levels with each, you will set yourself up for good judgment:
It is not enough to make wise judgments. How you implement them matters equally.
Equity and fairness arise from respect and wise leaders show that respect. If your leadership does not have an ethical or moral dimension, it can certainly produce smart outcomes, but can it ever be truly sustainable – let alone wise?
‘Parrhesia’ is the concept, from ancient Greece, of speaking without fear. Leadership roles will often require this kind of courage, especially when presenting uncomfortable truths to people with more power or authority than you.
However, the courage is not principally about diving in and responding boldly. It is more about facing up to the need to manage your emotional responses and to deal with theirs. Preparation is key, so project leaders need to practice delivering difficult messages with equanimity.
Authority has a special place in the leadership wisdom, as we’ll see later. Wise leaders create authority through engaging effectively with their supporters, their doubters, and the neutrals alike. This creates the perception in all of them that you are a leader who has a right to lead.
This needs to be especially true when the doubters remain unconvinced that the leader is right. I do not always have to believe you are right to perceive you as wise.
We communicate influentially when the impact of what we say increases in line with how much we communicate. When we bore people, the more we say; the less impact it has.
Wisdom allows us to have
One of the most fruitful areas of research and discussion in the leadership arena over the last few years has been ‘Authenticity’. This is the idea that leaders must, first of all, be true to themselves.
It is hardly a new idea: Shakespeare said it well in
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3
So let’s see how the seven pillars of wisdom map onto Authentic Leadership.
Authenticity has two components:
Personal authenticity is allowing yourself to be yourself. The focus is on who you are and understanding your place in the world. Moral authenticity, on the other hand, is about the choices you make and how you act upon them. In terms of the seven pillars:
This leaves us with one pillar of wisdom that is missing. Yet it is crucial to leadership: Authority.
Authority is the basis upon which others will grant you the right to lead. Without it, there can be no leadership. The form of authority you have will have a profound impact
In whatever domain you manage projects, you can anticipate that the coming challenges will make project leadership more difficult and complex. The model of leadership you adopt will become less and less the principle that will determine your success.
To face the challenges of delivering complex and important projects, you are increasingly going to need project leadership wisdom. You’ll need to be a project manager who can:
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll respond to every comment you make.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Training Journal, March 2013
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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