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Leadership Crisis: Fact Or Fiction?


By Russell Harley, veteran project manager and Director at PMO

Businessman sitting at table

The short answer it is a fiction. Even though there are a number of articles that differ from this point of view – including these at Forbes and the World Economic Forum. If you want to know the details as to why this crisis should be considered fictional in this author’s opinion, then please keep reading.

One reason for these differing points of views is people are looking at different types and definitions of what leadership is. Someone could be a recognized leader in a particular field or business then changes fields, like Ron Johnson moving from Apple to JC Penny. Which did not go so well for Penny’s.

JC Penney did away with this strategy [having coupons] after Ron Johnson assumed the helm of the company, modeling the company’s stores after those of Apple.

When people at the senior levels look to find leaders, they typically search for people who are similar to them, regardless of whether they would be considered leaders or not. This is termed as being a ‘team player’ or ‘having a good culture fit.’ A great approach, if you want things to stay the same. After all, JC Penny and Apple both sell consumer goods, so the same models for one could be applied to the other successfully… Right?

Not necessarily. Leadership, by its very definition, is an act or instance of leading, giving guidance or direction. To push the company forward you need to implement change, not keep things the same. As noted in this article at Inc.com, using ‘best practices’ is not an indication of leadership. Being comfortable with the people around you and following the pack is not leadership either.

So what makes a good leader? The Holden Leadership Center at the University of Oregon notes a very thorough list of leadership skills that encapsulate needed traits of good leaders. Two that stand out: Open to Change and Initiative. Neither sound like traits of people who follow others. While these traits were certainly true of Mr. Johnson at Penny’s, he failed at several others; like being Evaluative and Interested in Feedback. You need more than just a few of the items listed in order to be a real leader: Matter of fact, a leader should have almost all.

There are also dangers in trying to be a leader or take a leadership role in a company as well. Many times people can get into trouble attempting this with peers and superiors. The trouble can either be failure (due to lack of support or consumer outrage, as in Mr. Johnson’s case) or the individual is felt to be the ‘odd’ person out and does not ‘fit in.’ This obviously reduces the number of people that could be considered for leadership roles. This desire to have everyone ‘fit in’ reinforces the perception there is a lack of leaders in companies.

While this is all very interesting, what does it have to do with Project Management (the topic typically covered in these articles)? Let’s compare the leadership traits from above with what the Project Management Institute says are the key traits that all Project Managers should have*:

  • Show their worth
  • Understand business strategy
  • Overcome hurdles
  • Improve team performance

These can easily be mapped to the aforementioned leadership traits. Plus, although many Project Managers do not realize this, they are really leaders within their organization. Are Project Managers not expected to lead project teams to successful completions of projects? Communicate well with very diverse groups of people at all levels within an organization? Etc., Etc. Almost everything on Holden’s list can be applied to Project Managers.

While there are no solid numbers of Project Managers, a rough estimate puts about 9-11 million in the U.S. That’s a lot of leadership potential. Assume that only 30 percent are working at what would be considered ‘leadership’ levels, i.e. major projects with multiple millions of dollars of budget, etc. That still leaves around 3 million people who should have most of the traits listed by Holden.

So what is wrong? With this many people possessing these skills there should no perception of a leadership shortage at all. It looks like there are plenty of people to fill whatever leadership roles are needed.

The issue is company boards and C-level executives do not look at the Project Management field as a leadership field. MBAs and other leadership trainings are given far more weight over Project Management. This is really strange given the impact that Project Managers have on companies around the world. Typically the highest position in a company for Project Managers is a Director role of some kind; not a very high level of leadership at that level.

It all boils down to the perception of Project Managers versus typical C-level candidates. There are Projects Managers that work directly with executives every day leading initiatives that will increase profitability, improve/transform their businesses. If you trust Project Managers to do these major efforts successfully, why can you not trust them to actually do a C-level job?

‘Well a Project Manager does not know the things I know,’ could be one response. In actuality, Project Managers most likely know more than what a C-level thinks they know. In many cases, a Project Manager can be overridden by executives to the detriment of the company. So who knew more than whom in these cases?

In conclusion, the perceived leadership shortage is not due to an actual lack of leaders, it is due to looking in the wrong places for leaders. Until this perception changes about where to find leaders, there will continue to be a cry of ‘Where have all the leaders gone?’ However, if you are willing to expand the horizon of where to find leaders, you will find them where they have always been: Right beside you, leading the critical work your company needs to have done.

*Source: http://www.pmi.org/learning/professional-development/career-central/four-must-have-traits-for-project-managers.aspx


russell harley

Russell Harley is a veteran project manager and PMO director, passionate about helping organizations embrace world-class project management practices and “climb out of the quicksand” in terms of gaining control over complex, ever-changing project portfolios. The best practices he advocates stem from key learning’s acquired from his M.S Degree in Project Management, combined with over 20 years of hands-on PM experience in the high technology, telecommunications, and clean energy sectors.


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