How Leaders Can Lead Other Leaders

by Michael O'Connor

Program Management presents unique challenges in leadership as the primary team members are elite leaders. Programs are responsible for managing multiple projects, and operational efforts, to achieve benefits not available by managing projects separately. Therefore, Program Managers will set the vision, balance budgets, resources, and schedules across projects, and manage the Project Managers to achieve the overall program benefits.  

An elite (Project Manager) is considered to be a project team member with intelligence, talent, power, networked wealth, and usually individuals who have plenty of options providing them with a strong sense of self and of independence. Elites have built up their own loyal set of followers, and constituents who trust, believe, support, and choose to follow them. They operate outside of norms and standards and are often considered “special” as far as rules go.    

Elites earn the loyalty of followers by focusing on their stakeholders, delivering products, services, and results that have meaning as a guiding principle of decision making. While they are influenced by peers or management, outside institutions and organizations can have a direct and powerful conflicting impact on elites defining standards and approaches in the industry. Groups such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) can directly impact an elite with guidance, processes, and revised standards, ethics, or best practices regardless of the guidance provided by their current organization or leadership body.  

Most importantly, elites do not see themselves as followers and are quick to challenge, question, and even belittle any attempt to treat them as followers. Instead, they view themselves as leaders, and any decision to follow a direction is a choice made by the elite based on their self-interest, beliefs, and trust levels. They often believe that they are entitled to special treatment by their leadership and the organization as a whole and that they are outside the boundary of normal rules. They will expect privileges and benefits that are not available to others and will negotiate to ensure they receive the privileges and treatment they believe they are entitled to.  Rallying cries, empowerment techniques, motivational speeches, and calls to action will often fall on deaf ears when dealing with elites. Even more daunting, elites quickly recognize and often ridicule these obvious attempts to leverage “leadership” approaches over them. To be successful leading leaders, a conscious and direct set of approaches is needed that extends best practices for leadership over other teams.  

Leading leaders are based on trust, accountability, understanding, relationships, expertise, and a recognition of each influence factor on elites. Working with elites requires relationships built in one-on-one interactions at an individual level. Positive relationships build and facilitate trust, and trust in a leader is vital to ensure the desired action from followers. Regardless of the follower, trust in a leader is less risky and more acceptable than following the same recommended approach by an untrusted leader. At the end of the day, people follow because they believe that it is in their best interests.  

While trust is built-in communications, it is solidified in actions. A leader of others must not only communicate their support for their followers but it must also be demonstrated in every action taken. A leader who contradicts their words with their actions will soon lose trust. At the heart of all relationships is communication. Not just in communicating, but also in listening and understanding, ensuring that actions taken to support the team members and elite followers.  

Communication through one-on-one relationship building is a key process for leading leaders. Interacting, understanding, supporting, and believing in elites establishes the beginnings of trust between leaders and followers. This process, when ongoing and continuous one, invests in the followers and provides the leader with vital information as to the motivations, needs, beliefs, influences, and ambitions of the follower. With ongoing communications and relationship building, a leader has the tools to ensure trust is moving in both directions and can overcome any concerns or issues prior to pain points being felt.  

Elites are a tangible and substantial force within an organization. While they may have a formal or informal interest in their organization, their strengths make them a reasonable resource to tap into when selecting a leader. As such, they have not only a vested interest, but also often feel that the leader is beholding to them for their vote in the selection process. This creates an immediate area of potential conflict for new leaders as the elites do not necessarily view the leader as one to follow, but instead as one to perform as they expect.  

Key focus areas for leaders who lead elites in a Program would include:  

A leader of elites includes the interests of those to be led as they develop the strategies and tactics to be employed. Leading leaders are interest-based, as elites will not follow because of position, they follow because it is in their best interest. At the end of the day, the test of leadership is followership. Leadership, by definition, implies the existence of followers and requires others to be willing to follow. Leaders without followers are walking alone.


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