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Leadership makes or breaks complex projects

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Leadership makes or breaks complex projects. Why? Because complexity requires people to accept change. And people only accept change and flourish when they feel safe enough.

So who creates environments people can thrive in? It’s you. If you invest in becoming a leader, that is.

Becoming an effective leader isn't about management training. It’s not about a new process, method or tool, or about command and control.

Becoming a leader is about looking in the mirror. It’s about listening to painful home truths. It’s about changing your behaviour to become the leader others choose to follow. And it’s not vain self-indulgence to focus on yourself. Your leadership is vital to creating the ‘people-intelligent’ project environments we need to deliver complex projects successfully.

There are three areas where most leaders can benefit from developing themselves:

Firstly, generating an exciting project vision and ensuring that everyone understands their part. That’s the way to create meaning and commitment and to obtain discretionary effort from everyone involved.

Another factor is being trustworthy, so that your teams learn how to nurture trusting relationships with customers and suppliers. This is because when things go wrong, it’s relationships that create solutions.

Finally, it's important to focus everyone’s energy on what’s important – in other words, deliver measurable results. Prioritising, delegating and making good decisions are critical to prevent a limited supply of energy going to waste.

Interestingly, most leaders readily ‘get’ the above – and enthusiastically self-report about doing these things well. I recently watched one such leader demolish a team member who reported some disgruntled customer feedback. This leader’s much avowed ‘open and honest’ policy was seriously undermined because he was unaware of his fragility with perceived criticism.

Winners listen to feedback, no matter how painful it is. They then choose if or how to adapt. Their focus is on maximising success and they accept that others’ perceptions are key. At such times, I recommend a ‘think slowly, act swiftly’ approach.

If you want your complex project to be successful, then look in the proverbial mirror and relish honest feedback. In the words of Winston Churchill:

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”


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  1. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 01 February 2015, 06:19 PM

    To quote Kathy Austin "Managers light a fire under people, leaders light a fire in them."  This is far more than just listening attentively.  To start with no one can be a leader on their own; leaders are created by their followers choosing to follow them – this is a very different space to management and authority.  See: