Who's Really Leading the Team, Anyway?

Published: Aug 30, 2019
Modified: Feb 21, 2020

By Gary L. Chin

Project leadership is a sensitive topic and usually involves posturing between R&D, marketing, possibly another functional area and the project manager.

Consider the different perspectives of each prospective team leader.

In technology companies, in which R&D is critical to business success, the R&D team member would argue that projects are centered on R&D. Consequently, this member should become the project leader.

But the marketing team member may also want the role. After all, the marketing member represents the customer, and it would make sense that the customer’s needs should drive the project. So the marketing team member should be team leader.

Finally, there are the members of the team who have been assigned to manage the project. They would each expect to be the group’s leader.

And that’s only the official side of the situation.

Actually, the matter of the official leader is easy compared to the unofficial leader. The name of the assigned project manager goes on the organization chart and that’s that. However, if another team member feels that she should really be leading the project, she could jockey to become the unofficial leader. If this individual has the organizational clout, a strong enough personality and the support of her functional manager, she can achieve the status of unofficial project leader, thus pushing the project manager into an administrative support role. This is a scenario that occurs frequently.

Ambiguity around project leadership is a detriment to project agility. Not only does the situation confuse the decision-making process, it creates an inefficient use of valuable resources and causes frustration for team members. Identifying this situation and resolving it as early as possible in a project will greatly increase the likelihood of its success.

In the uncertain and accelerated project environment, there are many decision points. They need to be approached in an organized and professional manner.

How do you do this? You can eliminate ambiguity around project leadership by clearing defining and communicating the leadership-specific components of the key team members’ roles and responsibilities (i.e., those related to running meetings, reporting to management, directing activities of other team members and deciding on project course changes).

While there are numerous reasons that companies find themselves unclear about the person in charge of a project, one theme seems to surface: confusion over what the project manager’s role is. Most functional areas have very clear roles and responsibilities defined and agreed to throughout the organization. This is the result of many years of organizational evolution. Not so for the project manager role. This is still relatively new. In fact, I’ve seen organizations hire several project manager and then tell them to go forth and manage projects without any direction whatsoever.

In the absence of any organizational consistency, the success of the project manager becomes largely dependent on personal skills.

This is hardly a scalable project management model, and it is actually harmful to widespread adoption of project management methodologies because it creates confusion among team members as they move from project to project and see that all project managers do things a little differently.

Additionally, without a clearly defined role, team members tend to make their own assumptions about the duties of the project manager. The visions usually involve someone telling them what to do and then constantly calling them up to ask if they’re done yet. The project manager’s role is more often perceived as negative than positive.

This is another hindrance to PM agility. You will not be able to attain effective agility without the perception that project management is adding considerable value to the project.

Determining official and unofficial project leadership, including the role of the project manager, is difficult because it touches on politics, personalities and organizational inertia. Effectively implementing these roles in even harder. There is no easy template solution. It’s a complex organizational issue but it is one that must be addressed by any business striving to become more effective at project management.

This article is excerpted, by permission of the publisher, from Agile Project Management: How to Succeed in the Face of Changing Project Requirements by Gary Chin. Copyright 2004, Gary L.. Chin. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division.

About the Author(s)

Gary L. Chin is founder and principal of Cross Organizational Consulting (www.xocp.com).