“Take the bull by the horns” is a phrase believed to have originated in the American West around the 1800s. It means confronting a problem head-on versus waiting for the problem to solve itself or expecting someone else to tackle it. It is also believed that the only way to control a bull is to grab it by the horns. If someone tries to hold anywhere else, they risk getting smashed by the bull’s horns. This is what differentiates project leaders (project managers).
Those who have worked in different organizations and on various initiatives know that the definition of the Project Manager (PM) role varies from one organization to another and across departments within the same organization. On one extreme of the spectrum, a project manager is simply scheduling meetings, recording minutes, and publishing decisions and action items. On the other side, a project manager is actually driving an initiative and is held accountable for the project outcome.
Most of the standard definitions of the project manager role mention planning, execution, monitoring, organizing, managing people and resources, and running the project on a day-to-day basis. Some reference responsibility for the outcome of the project, but a few mention leadership at all.
Project leaders have two key facets:
Mastering the mechanics of project management:
This constitutes a grasp of the tactical aspects of project management such as creating a project plan, staffing and managing a team, organizing, assigning, and following up on tasks, managing schedule and budget, publishing status reports, managing issues and risks, controlling change, managing stakeholders, making sure project deliverables are completed, securing signoff, as well as running meetings and other day-to-day project activities and closing the project.
This starts with taking full responsibility for the delivery and outcome of the project. It includes articulating a vision, energizing and rallying stakeholders around the vision, instilling a sense of passion, focus, and urgency, keeping an eye on the long view, anticipating, balancing the important and urgent, fostering a positive, upbeat environment, setting the tone, leading by example, connecting with team members and empowering them to be at their best, listening, adjusting, standing with the team shoulder-to-shoulder and being there during the tough days and nights, and most important of all taking full responsibility and accepting blame when things go wrong.
Given the increasing complexity of organizations, business needs, and end-user expectations, mastering the project management mechanics alone is not sufficient. Today’s project managers must possess the necessary leadership skills to be comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, have difficult conversations, deal with tough challenges, persevere, and effectively manage various types of stakeholders and changing dynamics.