Project leader or project doer

There’s a lot of confusion about this one, because you can “do” all the work and not lead, and you can effectively “lead” something without doing all the work.

So sometimes someone is asked to “lead” a project and what they hear is “please do all the work.”  And sometimes the fact that someone is asked to “do all the work” is confused with a leadership opportunity – it is a step towards leading, but it’s not the same thing.

“Leading” means: I’m ultimately accountable for the success of this thing.  If I’m successful at leading, it will be done better and faster than expected and all the people doing it will feel great about what they accomplished together.  They may not even notice that I “led” anything – in fact it could be a great sign if they didn’t.

The most interesting, underappreciated opportunities are leadership opportunities when you’re not in charge.  It’s important because it’s the top-LEFT quadrant in this 2×2 (lead but not doing) that has the most leverage, not the top right (leading and doing).

The upper right has you working as hard as is humanly possible and feeling in control, but there’s a limit to how much this quadrant scales.


6 thoughts on “Project leader or project doer

  1. “Leading” means: I’m ultimately accountable for the success of this thing.

    Nice way to break it out. Being accountable does not mean doing it all. And it doesn’t mean delegating everything.

    It does mean having the courage to stand up and take responsibility. And it does mean having the trust in others to do their parts.

    Thanks for post this!

  2. i like it…This is a common mistake of more junior managers and leaders who think increased responsibility means they have to prove their ability to ‘do’. Always ends in disaster.
    I’d like to add another wrinkle to this matrix. I feel there is also a lot of confusion between leadership and management. Again, these are not the same thing but a lot of people confuse them. Despite what many organizations seem to believe, managing is not necessarily a sign of leadership and good leaders are not necessarily good managers (and vice versa). A lot of time is spent managing, not just doing, and while that may get you to success for a project or initiative, it still does not constitute leadership. Leadership is more than just the success of the ‘project’ it is ensuring a successful future and long term vision for the thing that makes the project valuable and worth doing in the first place. (if that’s not too esoteric!).

  3. William, it is a great wrinkle that you’re adding, not esoteric at all. I was thinking “lead” with a lower case “l” (if you will), which is probably letting myself off the hook for this important and broader point that you make – so project leadership (ok, maybe that’s project “management”) versus execution.

    Hear hear for the successful long-term vision, and bonus points for the matrix that shows that one!!

  4. I really like the distinction that you’ve made here – it’s really helpful to think that one does not have to “do” everything. However, I think that one issue at a lot of non-profits is being chronically understaffed. I’d love for you to share insight on how to manage leading in a situation where everyone on the team is already stretched pretty thin.

  5. Nathana, this is a tough question. Driving all the way to the core issue (and a lot of the reason I write this blog) – why are we chronically understaffed? I assume it’s because we’re either chronically underfunded (too few people to do the absolutely necessary work) OR because we’re not focused enough on the really important things (so we’re spending time doing things that aren’t absolutely necessary).

    On the first point, as a sector I firmly believe that we need to re-conceptualize the strategic importance of being able to mobilize resources. Shorter term fixes are hard to come by if you simply don’t have the arms and legs to do what you need to do.

    The question I’d ask is – what if you had no constraints and only took actions that would position you for success 12 months from now (despite the short-term pain). What would you do? How different would this be from what you’re doing now? And how painful would it be?

    I remember a yoga teacher who nudged me twice as far as I thought I could go into a pose and he said, “All you’ll feel is just a bit more sensation.” It was more than a bit more, but the pain was, in fact, not nearly as terrible as I’d imagined it to be.

  6. Sasha, thank you for your reply.

    I think the relationship between being understaffed and devoting resources non-optimally could at times potentially be connected. One relevant issue is: how to change past practices that are done in a particular way because that is how they were always done to a new set of practices which leverages every possible efficiency? Or in other words, how can we organize and streamline to take advantage of resources and technological tools that can help to increase output potential per person. The issue then becomes: how to devote resources towards discovering and implementing such tools versus having the man hours to get grants written, etc?

    Developing the infrastructure that would enable the best possible mobilization of resources is itself an important issue. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on these questions if possible.

    I really do appreciate you taking the time to not only write this blog, but also to engage in dialogue here in the comments.

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