Advice from the trenches

Intuitively one would assume generals know little about the traditional consensus-driven world of project management, since the military tends to be a hierarchical “my way or the highway” type of institution.

But in the closing keynote address during the recent ProjectWorld in Toronto, retired Canadian Major-General Lewis MacKenzie drew on his vast experiences running multi-national United Nations peacekeeping units to come up with some sound project management advice.

After all, how often does your team include members representing 31 nations, speaking more than a dozen languages, spanning a multitude of cultures and religions?

MacKenzie’s talk was both serious and humourous while poignantly drawing parallels between desirable leadership traits found in military and business leaders alike. Though he admitted there are times when the two veer apart.

“In the military we defend democracy, we don’t practice it,” he joked.

Good leaders, like good project managers, know that not all goes according to the game plan and that even the most well laid out project can often have undesired results.

He told a story that occurred many years ago when he was trying to address the concern that his men were driving after consuming too much alcohol. He decided to install a breathalyser at one of the soldier’s favourite drinking holes, reasoning that if only one man used it and took a taxi home that the cost was well worth it.

So like the hands-on type of leader he was, he dropped by to see if it was being used. He arrived to find a large crowd of soldiers around the breathalyser but soon realized his plan, though well intended, was a major mistake.

“Two point nine, is that all you can do?” he overheard. They were using it to see who could get the drunkest, not to see if they were fit to drive.

“OK, that was a bad idea,” he admitted.

Don’t change

As you climb the corporate ladder and lead more people and projects, don’t let the power go to your head. MacKenzie said far too often in his career he saw individuals undergo severe personality changes when they got the taste of power.

Remember, he said, “[the perks] are not for you, they are for the position.”

Part of the way to keep the ego in check is to be hands on, what MacKenzie called LBWA, leadership by wandering about. “It is so easy these days to be a slave to your desk.”

Wandering about, in itself, is not enough if you have no relationship with those you command. MacKenzie said the easiest way to get people to open up is to find out what their passions are and get them talking about them. For MacKenzie, his passion for cars and racing came in handy when talking to 17 or 18 year-old recruits whose lives revolved around girlfriends and cars.

Another key to good leadership is learning to listen. If has often been said no one ever learns anything while they are talking. You learn by listening, a trait found in too few project managers. “Fifteen years ago I started to pay attention,” he said. The down side was that MacKenzie learned that half the people below him were smarter, he joked.

And when those below you gives you a good idea, give them credit for it. MacKenzie said he was pleasantly surprised to learn that when he gave those below him credit for their actions he also got credit. A perfect win-win situation.

There is a great need for all leaders to demonstrate character, something often lacking in today’s business environment. He said the ability to make ethical decisions is not a complicated one. His technique? “Imagine someone you love and respect looking over your shoulder,” he said. If they matter to you, you will automatically do the right thing.

When all hits the fan that may, remember that senior leaders take responsibility for their actions and those under their command.

“I defy you to find leaders who you feel less good about…who say ‘I am responsible,'” he said.

Important to both project managers and those who are on the projects is to have the courage to disagree. When you think something is wrong or being done incorrectly, raise your objections. The key, MacKenzie added, is that you don’t have to be disagreeable when you disagree. And if you are feeling disagreeable, be an actor and act like you do on a good day.

“Nobody likes an unpredictable leader or boss.”

Last but certainly not least, good leaders have a good sense of humour. You don’t have to be a stand-up comic to succeed but you should be able to take some ribbing for the team. In the military, renowned for its pranks, MacKenzie said humour is a basic requirement.

“If you can’t take a joke, don’t put on a uniform.”