Project Management

What Project Leaders Can Learn From the COVID-19 Crisis

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Categories: Disruption


By Dave Wakeman

As you may have noticed, my attention during the pandemic has been largely focused on the lessons we can all learn about leadership. 

Why mess with a good thing? So, I’ll continue to focus on leadership this month, since the lessons are still popping up fast and furious. 

Let’s look at what we’ve learned so far about project leadership through the COVID-19 crisis and then turn those into a few actionable ideas we can all put into practice. 

First, we’ve found that folks who led with science are the ones who have done a better job of fighting the disease. I’m looking at you Taiwan, New Zealand and Germany, to name three. 

Second, we’ve seen that communication is crucial and that honest, consistent communication is the most important thing we can have. And, leaders who provide a vision, a plan and consistent updates are able to gather more support, achieve better outcomes and build more trust. 

Third, we’ve seen that expertise matters and that it is impossible for one person to know everything about everything. 

So, how do we continue to put these practices to use in our own project careers? Here are a few more ideas for all the leaders out there: 

Trust the experts: The first and third points highlight an overarching theme of modern project management and modern leadership: No one knows everything—and I’d go one step further. One of the best things that an expert does is curate the overwhelming amount of knowledge out there in the world. 

Again, in viewing the coronavirus press briefings around the world, you see countries toying with herd immunity and countries actually following that theory; then, you have countries with leaders who are offering up wildly unproven medical solutions; and you have other countries that have had stricter shutdown protocols. 

What does this show us?

It shows us that there are going to be hundreds of solutions to every situation. Some of them have value and some of them are total quackery. This is why experts matter. 

An expert can look at all of the tested options, all of the potential options and all of the long shots, and think through whether or not they are feasible, likely or improbable. 

This matters, because as a project manager, you are likely always going to deal with a certain amount of risk—and just because something isn’t likely doesn’t mean it isn’t worth testing. 

What it does mean is that you need to make sure that when you test an idea or a solution, you understand it might not work and are able to recognize success or failure through a lens of knowledge and trust in your team’s expertise. 

Or, if you have a crazy idea that you might want to test due to the nature of the situation you are dealing with, you can try that as well—with the knowledge that the idea may have a low probability of success.

Leadership matters most during the tough times: It was recently May 4, the day when Star Wars is celebrated around the world. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, there is a scene in which Darth Vader confronts Orson Krennic about how he is handling the rebel alliance. Krennic makes a bunch of excuses and claims about the efficiency of his leadership and tries to win over Vader’s support for him to command the Death Star just as it was becoming a powerful weapon to terrorize the galaxy. 

With his back to Krennic, Vader uses the force to put a choke hold on Krennic and tells him, “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.” 

I like to think that this is a great analogy for the kind of leaders who love to be leaders in the good times, but try to pass the buck when things go wrong. 

The reality of leadership is that you have to take the good with the bad, and I think history has proven that the leaders who lead courageously through times of trouble are the ones who are remembered the most. 

As an example, Abraham Lincoln is remembered for holding the United States together as the Civil War worked to tear it apart. Winston Churchill is remembered more for his leadership in World War II than he is remembered for any of his other accomplishments. And everyone remembers Mel Gibson’s speech in Braveheart before sending his army off to fight. Am I right? 

The point I’m making is that leading is often about how you deal with challenging situations, change or turmoil—and not how you navigate the easy moments. 

Why? Because it isn’t easy to make decisions in troubling times. There likely isn’t one answer, but many—all of which likely carry a certain amount of risk. How you deal with these situations defines you and determines whether you are a success or a failure as a leader. 

How have challenging situations made you a better project leader?

 

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 11, 2020 02:55 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Thanks for sharing., very interesting.

That's a really interesting post Dave.

I myself am finding the HBR publication 'On Managing in a Downturn' quite insightful. I believe the real pain lies ahead in the months to come, and we all need to be better equipped to deal with those challenges and leverage the opportunities that present themselves.

Dear Dave Wakeman,
Yes, I got a challenge during this pandemic.My supervision work on construction projects require meetings, discussions, but becomes difficult to get together for fear of the disease. Anyway, we tried the discussions by teleconference calls, pair-wise discussion (standing up in open field in groups of two or not more than three), .. and write minutes to be read and reviewed individually (but we did in a meeting room together previously). Inaddition, TV media creates strict messages in addition in Ethiopia to help people be aware of the dangers that might come as a result of COVID-19.
Sincerely
Engdaw Admasu

Good article and love the Darth Vader example! Through difficulty lies opportunity. I've found that to always be the case even though many times it is difficult to see light at the end when you are in the middle of it.

What I've learned when faced with difficult situations is to always remain calm and collected. I've had customers yelling and swearing at my team all while the team members were staring at me to do something. In that time it is easy to yell back and pound fists, however, it's always best to argue with facts in a calm manner.

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