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What Happened to Training People in Project Leadership Skills?

question mark in alley

Whatever happened to training people in project management skills?

Good question.


You might argue that there is lots of project management training available, but most of that isn’t about leadership, it’s about management and it teaches a very directive approach to managing projects – it’s as if the hierarchy got grafted onto the field of leading projects.

Isn’t that why project managers in the 1990s insisted they needed authority in order to lead a project?

And isn’t that why dual reporting was invented?

For over 50 years, we’ve been training project managers in how to manage, in how to lead as if they were part of the hierarchy, in how to keep control of the project by doing all the planning themselves. 

The real answer to what happened to training people in project leadership skills is that we never did, and we still don’t.

We see project managers in much the same way as we see other functional leaders, as managers, who need authority in order to get things done. And managers are terrified of giving up their authority. Why? Well, it gives them some positional power over people and that makes them feel good and it allows them to coerce people into doing what they need them to do so the leader can meet his goals.

This is the essence of directive leadership and basically, that’s what project managers have been trained to do:

  • Create the plan and then delegate it out to team members.
  • Get them to provide the project manager with updates.
  • It’s the project manager who decides what happens when problems arise.
  • It’s the project manager who makes most of the project decision because it’s the project manager that owns the project. 

Project managers also cling to authority because they haven’t learned how to lead without it. They don’t have collaborative leadership skills. They haven’t been trained in how to lead without authority. They don’t know how to create engagement. They don’t know how to create ownership. They don’t know how to create high performing teams.  

Engagement and ownership are crucial to projects because ultimately projects are outside of the hierarchy. Almost every project is cross-functional. Almost every project, no matter what function initiates it, has stakeholders from outside of that function. At the very least most of them require some sort of IT involvement.

So, by definition, projects need to be led without authority because of the cross-functional nature of them.

Dual reporting is not a real solution. You can’t have two people with authority over someone – that completely defeats the real purpose of authority which is to provide the ultimate direction for someone, not to tell them what to do. 

And that leads us to collaborative leadership. The way in which you lead cross-functionally, and even if you want to be a great leader, is by using collaborative leadership skills and tools and methods. This also works for functional leadership, but they are not rushing to embrace it because it’s not easy and it means giving up some control. 

What Are Collaborative Leadership Skills, Tools, and Methods?

To lead collaboratively is to enable a team to effectively and efficiently make decisions, solve problems, plan what needs to get done, monitor how well they are progressing, etc.

In other words, the team actually manages the work. In order for that to happen, the leader needs to do two things, provide the team with collaborative tools that they can follow step-by-step so they can make decisions together or solve problems or plan a project together, and they need to facilitate the team so that they are successful at using those tools.

Using a structured collaborative tool which has clear steps for the team to follow makes collaborating both effective and efficient. Collaborating where people sit around a table and just discuss or argue is not effective or efficient.  

And so, leaders (starting with project leaders) need to be trained in a whole set of collaborative project tools – ones that will allow the team to plan the project together. Through a process of collaborative planning, they become engaged in the project and they start to take ownership of it. These are the first steps to creating high performing teams. 

High performing teams actually require more than just collaborative tools:

  • The project leaders need to be trained in how to manage the stages of team development as well as how to facilitate the tools they will be leading.
  • They need to learn how to approach their leadership role as an empowered adult and not as a parent, dictator or bully.
  • They need to learn how to avoid conflict and how to resolve it when it does show up.
  • They need to learn how to use accountability appropriately on their team and how to recognize and reward the team as well as individuals for what goes right and not overly focus on what goes wrong, because things will always go wrong. Murphy taught us that, and one of the tests of a true leader is how they handle the situation when things don’t go the way they wanted them to go. That’s the time when the leader needs to step back and not just take over – where they need to coach and guide and help the team regain equilibrium and move forward.

The collaborative leader keeps the ownership for the project with the team and helps shield them from outside influences that might seek to derail them and the project. 

Leading Projects Is the Foundation for Exceptional Leadership

Leading projects is the best training ground for exceptional leadership because project leaders, if they are properly trained and apply what they learn, will be able to build high performing teams, from scratch, without having any direct authority over the members of the team. They will be able to create engagement and ownership.

This is way more than managing a project by creating a schedule in Microsoft® Project. So, the first thing we need to do is stop training people in project management and start training them in collaborative project leadership; you create leaders who can actually lead projects to success and who can move from there into any other leadership position in the organization because they have truly learned how to lead, and not manage. 

Paula Martin

Paula Martin is a Master Level Certified Matrix Management Consultant™ (CMMC™—MOL), and the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the Matrix Management Institute. She is the developer of the MM 2.0™ Operating System, and the author of the Matrix Management 2.0™ Body of Knowledge, the Matrix Management Reinvented book series, and more than 10 other books on topics related to Matrix Management and Managing Projects in a Matrix.