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What project leaders need to do to be effective leaders now and in the future

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I am sure my experience is familiar: an undergraduate degree followed by roles that provided me with the real-life experience to complement my studies with pragmatism and common sense. I worked on small projects then larger projects, taking on planning roles and positions of responsibility and, in due course, leadership of major programmes.

But there was a twist in my career journey: I joined the Army and so followed my degree at Imperial College  (Imperial) with officer training at Sandhurst. Imperial’s motto is Scientia imperii decus et tutamen – ‘Scientific knowledge, the crowning glory and the safeguard of the empire’. Sandhurst’s motto is ‘Serve to lead’.

I recall a few project management lectures at Imperial – but my undergraduate experience was largely bereft of direct reference to leadership. What Imperial lacked, Sandhurst and my military experiences made up for in spades. In general, this seems to reflect the civilian infrastructure approach: leadership learned by experience, often bitter.

Project management was the mantra, balancing time, cost and quality to deliver the most efficient solution. Tools, systems, practice and training have been developed to refine project management. It has transformed the delivery of infrastructure projects. Some fine leaders have emerged through the Darwinian selection that characterises the industry, but the industry maintains an unfortunate reputation for failing to deliver on time and budget.

Successes and failures cannot be attributed solely to the presence or absence of leadership. But there are few precedents for success that do not draw heavily on leadership as a capability.

Inspiring collective achievement

I recently re-watched Peter Weir’s beautiful 1989 film Dead Poets Society. Apart from providing another great platform for the talents of the late Robin Williams, it told the sad coming-of-age story of a group of students. But underlying the narrative, there is a great story of leadership, ie “exercising influence on others so that they collectively achieve something that they might not have achieved otherwise” (Norman Dixon).

Williams’ character, John Keating, inspires his students to change their perception of the world and to reach out to achieve things they thought unachievable. The cry of “O Captain! My Captain!” was transformed from Whitman’s melancholic poetry to the binding acknowledgement by the students that Keating had indeed inspired them and changed their lives. Keating created a cause based on powerful ideas that motivated and inspired.

Leadership should not be left to evolve by accident

So, what do we need to know to be effective leaders? There are many texts that offer answers to this question. Most prescribe steps that will result in the reader’s elevation to being a ‘leader’. Anyone who aspires to lead or wishes to develop their leadership skills should read these – selectively. But it is time we acknowledged that allowing leadership talent to evolve almost by accident is no longer acceptable.

The Army has done it for 150 years; UCL is about to launch an industry-leading Major Infrastructure Delivery MBA, which includes a complete module on leadership. It is time that the civilian industry professionalised leadership. The military model does not necessarily translate into the civilian world, but many of its lessons do. The one lesson above all else is that leaders may be born, but even those need nurturing. Leadership development, including training and education, should be in everyone’s career plan. It cannot be left to chance any further.

Project leaders need help

The infrastructure industry is, at last, facing the full force of the digital change winds. If project leaders at all levels are to be able to exploit the opportunities this will bring and survive the challenges, they will need help. Our workforce is ageing and stress-related mental health problems are common. We need leaders who can: provide vision and ideas; build effective teams; understand, relate to, support and inspire the people they work for; and energise teams to innovate, deliver and achieve what they might not believe they can.

Fundamentally, leadership is about people and so I will leave the last quote to a military leader, Sydney Jary MC (author of 18 Platoon, one of the necessary reads!): “Sound leadership – like true love, to which I suspect it is closely related – is all powerful. It can overcome the seemingly impossible and its effect on both leader and led is profound and lasting.” Carpe diem!

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