Successful execution of any project relies on the work of leaders at every level. This is true whether you are the foreman who coordinates the work of your crew, the superintendent who ensures that all trades work together, the project manager who deals with the slew of companies that must behave as one, the designer who manages the work of multiple architects, engineers, and consultants, or the owner who makes sure the project, executed by a very large team, meets the needs of a diverse set of end users. How you behave in your leadership role will impact the final outcome of the project, as well as the experience of every team member along the way.

In project work, leadership comes with some unique challenges. These exist at every level of the project organizational chart:

  • Our teams are temporary, usually assembled to complete one project at a time
  • Individuals work for multiple companies giving us little formal authority
  • Companies have differing, and sometimes opposing, interests and motivations
  • We have little time to build trust and teamwork
  • Individuals come to the team with unique backgrounds, skill sets, and culture.

In this environment, traditional leadership techniques often fail. A command and control approach is likely to receive push back from multiple directions and will have limited ability to do either command the direction of the team, or control individuals who make it up. Leaders who attempt this approach find themselves forever tightening control mechanisms with diminishing effectiveness. The more you “police” the work of your team, the less responsibility and accountability they have for their own work. You end up creating a group of individuals and companies who have limited ability to contribute, and are forced to follow orders, defend their actions, and watch out for the interests of their own companies over those of the project.

A much more effective approach is to shift toward what I call the “Exponential Leadership” behavior. This approach empowers individuals while quickly and transparently aligning their interests with the broader needs of the project. By placing the highest priority on demonstrating respect for people, and minimizing the reliance on formal authority, it’s possible to quickly create high-performance teams that leverage the capabilities of every individual while working together to achieve a common goal. This may sound idealistic, but you can begin to make the shift by changing your behavior for daily, routine tasks.

  • Ask questions rather than give orders
  • Get commitments rather than hold accountability
  • Mentor collaboration rather than control
  • Set goals together rather than hand down mandates
  • Expect more from teams rather than squeeze out their autonomy

Creating a shift in your leadership style can have a dramatic effect on your team, and it doesn’t require a life-altering shift in your thinking or behaviors. Start with a few small changes and focus on showing respect for people while avoiding reliance on your formal authority. This thinking can slowly transform how you interact with your team, and begin to open up new possibilities for higher levels of collaboration and performance. Even the smallest change can start to make a difference on your current project.

For more information about exponential leadership, and how to put lean thinking to work in your projects, check out the book, Better Building: Lean Practice for the Project-Driven Organization.