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Cultivate different leadership styles to create collaborative teams

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The past year has demonstrated how critical leadership is when delivering change in a VUCA context. The trend of placing ‘soft’ skills on par with technical ones in delivering change is also transitioning into a paradigm shift. Despite leadership long being considered an essential competence for project professionals, its constancy nevertheless obscures variance over time in the skills and attributes considered as good practice.

As project professionals, what is our understanding of the leadership competence today? Is it reflective of leadership more generally? Does it emanate from the current APM Body of Knowledge and focus solely on projects? Or is it a hybrid of the two perspectives?

Selecting a leadership style to suit the project is a mantra today, but is your leadership style still largely one-dimensional? Conveying a compelling project vision effectively to inspire and enable others’ buy-in requires appropriately developed communication skills.

Facets of modern leadership

Recognising that people deliver projects demands a leadership approach that builds trust to benefit collaboration and team working.

All these leadership skills require listening to and reading a vast array of people and contexts to respond effectively with integrity and authenticity. Regardless of job title, we all need to demonstrate leadership, particularly in challenging contexts.

Leadership today requires knowledge of varying leadership styles and when to deploy them; of team members and wider stakeholders and how to successfully engage them; and of the project context and strategic and delivery approaches. It requires knowledge of ourselves, our strengths and limitations. It also requires open and honest communication, sharing information to enable informed choices by all. Appropriate and altered behaviour aligned to knowledge, and building necessary relationships, are also elements of leadership.

With collaboration being fundamental, what constant elements of leadership should run through a project or programme when we are urged to alter our style to suit the context? Proven practices are more essential than ever as we hone and adjust our leadership skills while creating contexts to generate the best from project teams.

Collaboration and inclusivity – what are the differences?

Project leaders’ perspectives and lived experiences were prioritised in a 2018 APM research paper by Sarah Coleman and Professor Mike Bourne that identified five headings to conceptualise project leadership and eight ‘project leadership survival skills’. Two years later, the APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition defined leadership as “establishing vision and direction, to influence and align others towards a common purpose, and to empower and inspire people to achieve success”. More recently, evolving practice has visualised what good leadership is and how to achieve it more collaboratively and inclusively.

Collaboration is often used interchangeably with being inclusive, which can be problematic. Wider leadership approaches today increasingly view inclusion strategically, underpinned by a range of processes and behaviours. Collaboration, on the other hand, is somewhat narrower – working with someone to produce something.

The concept of inclusive leadership, embracing people, approaches, mindsets and behaviours, is a proactive thread linking project strategy, delivery and relationships. No longer about ‘me’ or ‘us’, it catapults ‘them’ and ‘others’ to the core.

As we cope with an altered context, the extensive benefits of greater inclusion cannot be overstated. No leader has all the answers – making this our starting point demands an element of humility alongside an altered mindset. Directional leadership styles often come to the fore during a crisis, as anything else may appear counter-intuitive.

Organisations and teams built on a foundation of inclusive leadership thrive in good times and bad.

Emotional and cultural intelligence

Beyond an altered starting point, a further component of inclusive leadership is empowering and drawing on the voices and strengths of all the team and wider stakeholders. Countless studies have demonstrated that psychological safety is key to unlocking innovative capability. Harnessing the capability of diversity also creates a sense of feeling valued in others, but requires emotional and cultural intelligence. How well developed is yours?

Too often, we view the world from our own perspective – an implicit bias linked to upbringing, role models and previous team and work cultures. Inclusive relationships and leadership require objectivity in acknowledging this, greater empathy for others, deep listening, more meaningful engagement and different behaviours that are perhaps unfamiliar or may even initially appear risky.

Cognisant of our individual limitations, greater challenges today, unseen gaps of groupthink and the numerous benefits possible from more inclusive working, why is inclusivity not a greater constant within project teams and leadership? As project professionals, we are altering our mindsets on the significance of soft skills. Are we ready for a further paradigm shift – more inclusive collaboration and transitioning into inclusive leaders? 

This blog features as a column in the summer 2021 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

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