Leadership from Below the Decks: Enabling Your Project Team to Steer the Ship

Opportunity to demonstrate leadership doesn’t always come from the top. When the right people are in the right roles with the right responsibilities, leadership can show itself in many and varied ways.

What is it that makes a ‘great’ leader? Much is made of the importance leadership plays in successful organisations and in the project sphere, it is vital. A project will often succeed or fail based on the quality of the leadership shown by the project manager.

While leadership from the front is a critical part of success, what about the rest of the project team? What part can they play in a leadership capacity and will it mean that the project has a better chance of success?

Defining leadership

Leadership is not a title you’ll find on a project org chart or in the descriptions that exist in a roles and responsibilities document. While it’s true that having clarity and a clear understanding of the chain of command is critical in any project, it’s not paperwork that will guarantee quality leadership—which is particularly true when you often only reference this particular piece of project hygiene when things go awry.

Whilst it is important to clearly define project leadership in a project structure, what is far more important is that project managers pick up and assume the mantle of leader from the outset. The qualities that define good leadership are easy to find yet often in a project environment, there is a singular focus on the project manager to govern an outcome.

One of the most critical components of effective leadership is rarely talked about in leadership discussions, which is the benefits of sharing the leadership responsibilities with those further down the organisational food chain. It’s a function of effective leadership that can vastly improve project success.

Are your shoes comfortable?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but our view is the project leader who will empower their team and actually share the leadership challenge with subordinates (within a well-defined risk-based framework) is arguably a stronger and better leader than one who keeps the leadership role held tight to their chest.

From the outside, it may appear that giving those below you more responsibility to help lead is a way for a project manager to avoid the leadership challenges themselves. But there is an alternative view.

Trusting your team to help make leadership decisions takes a braver and more evolved style of leader: One who does not micromanage (never a good management style in our book) but who will trust the judgement and the read of their team in situations based on their experience, then act accordingly.

Thailand and the epitome of leadership

While the world has moved on following the successful cave rescue of a Thai soccer team and coach, it’s an example that richly illustrates just how important it can be to enable leadership to come from within the team and not always be led from the top.

The right people in the right place doing the right things. From our perspective, it was an example of what can happen when the people at the literal front line are empowered to make decisions that lead to successful outcomes.

Let’s look at the key points:  The entire project was under the intense scrutiny and pressure of the world’s media and global audience. There was a clearly defined chain of command with the buck stopping with the local Thai leadership team that remained primarily above ground.

When faced with the challenges of a complicated environment, the cohort of rescuers from many countries in the cave was supported by an incredible amount of cooperation and a willingness to let the SMEs lead within their own areas of expertise from the leadership team above ground.  It was far from simple recommendations being relayed back to the leadership team for consideration and sign-off: Clearly, the team in the caves were given the freedom to make a range of decisions in real-time which helped lead to a successful outcome.

The ‘sharing of leadership’ was brought about by a number of factors, such as time, quality, and trust.

Firstly, time. There was precious little of it and conditions were changing constantly. The central command established, many of the decisions needed to be made quickly and not wait for a more considered approach due to these time pressures. Each decision was a life-or-death judgment and had to be made by the best people on hand.

Second, the quality of the team. A call went out to professionals who had multiple, relevant skill sets applicable to the job at hand; people, it must be said, who understood the perils and challenges of cave rescue who adjusted their approach to the situation accordingly. The leaders knew they needed the right expertise and to give them the scope to make key decisions. Once those teams were assembled and below ground, the leadership team understood that it was the cohort of experts who would be making and owning many decisions based on what they were faced with.

The third – and final – factor is trust. It could have been all so different in other circumstances had the above ground leadership taken a different path. They understood their role was to facilitate, empower and support those going into the cave network to make the right decisions for the safety and wellbeing of both the soccer players and their own team. They effectively led from high above.

And bravo to them. If the leadership above ground had taken the micromanagement route, we daresay that the Wild Boars First 11 would very likely be stilled holed up underground.

How can you support your team to be better leaders?  Contact us here to find out more about our in-house training and leadership days or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...

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