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How can project professionals achieve the perfect leadership approach?

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What the best leadership approach is with your team. Should you be soft or challenging, or somewhere in between? How do we achieve the perfect balance?

The quick answer is that your leadership approach should be flexible enough to adjust to the person you are leading in any given situation on any given project. When leading a person who lacks confidence and skills, you need to display more of your softer side, whereas someone who is very confident and knowledgeable would respond better to a more challenging approach.

Serve, command or both?

Most team members fall somewhere in between. They need a healthy mix of support and challenge from their manager to perform and generate the best results. This means you should provide all the support and nurture your team needs to deliver and grow, while simultaneously setting high standards and expecting the best. In other words, you must learn to access your empowering yin-style of serving others, and at the same time access your commanding yang-style.

Yin symbolises the feminine elements such as listening, supporting, coaching, maintaining stability and praising people for a job well done. These characteristics are hugely important when establishing and leading a team, especially in the early days when people don’t yet trust their own abilities. You can use your supportive yin side to build your team’s confidence and develop skills that are lacking.

Yin to enable, yang to challenge

Using your yin style, you would want to understand what drives and motivates each member of the team and what type of help they each need. Connect with people one-to-one, understanding their position and assisting them in growing and developing. At a team level, encourage collaboration and provide a safe environment for team members to work together and come up with their own solutions.

Yin leadership is enabling and is concerned with making it possible for others to flourish and contribute. Yang, on the other hand, symbolises the masculine element, which is challenging, demanding and factual. This side of leadership sets a high standard and expects the team to deliver to it. To access your yang side, provide the team with a strong sense of direction, set the bar high and encourage action and results. Ask probing questions regarding assumptions, solutions and schedules, and hold your team to account. Be assertive when needed and challenge your team to deliver to the best of its ability. The more confident and able your team is, the better it will respond to your challenges.

Imbalances in yin and yang

Most project managers have a preference for either yin or yang. They have developed a style where either the yin or the yang element has grown to dominate. If you end up with too much yang, and very little yin, you will create stress around you. You will demand a lot but not give the team the security, confidence and space it needs to perform. On the other hand, if you only use yin, you run the risk of being too soft and nice and ending up with a team that’s underperforming.

In summary, your team needs a dynamic tension of both yin and yang to perform and thrive. Adjust how much of each element you use relative to how confident and able each team member is. In general, your leadership approach shouldn’t be ‘either/or’ but ‘and’. You must be enabling and demanding; flexible and tough; supportive and challenging. When you combine yin and yang in this holistic way, you become a results-oriented project leader who cares about people and who involves them in the decisions that affect them. Then you become a leader who challenges the team to continuously improve and innovate while stepping back and enabling them to do so.

Do you have a question for Susanne? Email


This article first appeared in the summer 2021 edition of Project journal, free for APM members

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