Leadership without Authority - Converging 360
Rita Mulcahy's Original Exam Prep ™

Leadership without Authority

I’m reading “Leadership and the One Minute Manager,” by Ken Blanchard. The book discusses “situational leadership,” which essentially means that a manager’s leadership style must vary depending on the competency of the person being managed.   As I was reading the book I realized that these management styles, while probably relevant, would not initially apply to most project managers.

In the scenario outlined in the book, an entrepreneur is seeking advice from the one-minute manager on how to manage her employees.  In all of the situations discussed by the one-minute manager there was a clear authority relationship between the manager and the employee.  The manager was the boss.

A project manager often must deal with situations where they have no authority to directly dictate behavior.  That got me thinking of another book that I read in college – “Presidential Power,” by Richard Neustadt.

In his book Neustadt draws a distinction between power and authority.  Essentially authority, the rules outlining what the President can and cannot do, are set forth in the Constitution, Federal law and Federal regulations.  Neustadt observes that Presidents have very little authority.  The President exercises power.

In the case of the President of the United States, power is personal to the individual occupying the Presidency.  The President has limited authority to command and derives virtually all of his or her power through persuasion and bargaining.  Presidential power comes from three sources:  The advantages inherent in the office (Presidential prestige); the belief that the President has certain advantages over them (real or perceived); and the public view of those presidential advantages.  By leveraging those three sources of power, the President bargains and persuades those around him to accomplish his or her goals.

For the project manager this power versus authority distinction is real.  In many cases a project manager exercises very little actual authority.  Most of the project manager’s authority is derived through the project charter and the project sponsor – usually an executive or committee.  While that mandate may be powerful, it is often not self-enforcing.  To enforce the project manager’s mandate on strict authoritarian lines would require repeated intervention of the sponsors in the absence of cooperation from a project team.  This is inefficient, ineffective and will most likely lead to project failure.

In my opinion, a project manager’s real effectiveness comes from their ability to persuade project team members and stake holders to get the job done.  Obviously a project manager is not the President of the United States.  They can’t use the prestige of the office as leverage over stakeholders.  Nor can they use public popularity as a lever to get people to do things.  A project manager needs different leverage points.

The first leverage point is the document from which the project manager derives their authority – the charter.    One choice would be to use it as a command tool to bludgeon team members into performing.  As Neustadt said, command is exercised from a position of weakness.  The better use of the charter is to use it as an expression of a shared mandate for all team members and stakeholders to get the project done.

Another leverage point is the expertise possessed by the project manager.  Once the team members come to terms with the mandate as set forth in the charter, the project manager can use their expertise to convince all the members that the project manager is in the best position to lead the project and to get the team members to perform their respective functions in the project context in the shared belief that utilization of sound project management practices will best help them reach their shared goal in getting the project completed.

Let me give an example from a related field.  I’m a lawyer by training and spent over twenty years in the corporate environment.  A lawyer in a corporation has almost no authority to do anything.  Yet, in many corporations, a good lawyer often exercises an extraordinary amount of power.  A lawyer’s power is derived exclusively from their perceived expertise and their willingness to stand behind whatever opinion or advice they render.  People around them believe that they have unique expertise that will help business people achieve their goals or at least avoid speed bumps in achieving those goals.   Sound familiar?

Okay, so now you have buy in from everyone.  That’s great.  This is the point where you can confidently evaluate your team members to determine their individual competencies to perform the tasks assigned to them.  This is where situational leadership practices can come into play.  One word of warning, I would be careful about a directive leadership style with a team member that is not a direct report.  A project manager should make an effort to use a more coaching style than a directive one.  An experienced project manager can also use a technique that can be viewed as “disguised directive.”  This is where the project manager provides new or inexperienced team members with detailed instructions on what and how a task is to be done but does so with a supportive coaching style.

Tim Mulcahy

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