Project Leadership. Take a Front Row Seat

Town Hall discussions. Q&A sessions.  Team building activities.

Ever noticed how often these events have empty front rows while the crowd hangs around a few rows back? I often smile to myself when the announcer asks people to move forward, medicine to fill the empty places.

For many people, being called out in front of their friends and colleagues can be a traumatic thing. We are often scared to come forward and sit where we can be singled out, ridiculed and left feeling afraid that we will say the wrong thing.  Look around and see how people react in these situations; we sit close to our friends and seek anonymity in the pack.  Safety in numbers. Speak quietly. Stay out of sight.

Safety in numbers. Speak quietly. Stay out of sight.

But here’s the thing. As Project Leaders, we can’t do this.

Taking a Front Row Seat

We are constantly up front for everyone to see. 24/7.

As Project Leaders, we make a difference when we actively take the front row seats and look for ways to contribute, ask questions, engage with the speaker and shape the conversation.

We connect with people. We counsel, advise, rally, adjudicate, mentor, discuss and present. We speak to people across our organisations. We engage with our teams, stakeholders, vendors, partners, Sponsors, executives, work streams and interest groups.

I know that for many years, I used to be a back row guy (”why sit up the front when I can stay back here, check Twitter and slide out the door quietly if it’s too boring?”) until a trusted mentor pointed out a killer lesson – that much of the art of leadership is in the subtle, simple gestures that project one’s authority.

The way that we project ourselves matters.

Taking a front row seat. Every gesture. Every word. Every projection. Where we sit. How we hold ourselves. Voice. Body language. Posture. Attitude.

  • As leaders, we should be taking the lead (oops) and sitting up front
  • As leaders, we should be looking to actively contribute to the conversation at hand
  • As leaders, we should create and nurture an environment in which the speaker feels welcome and appreciated, where our team members feel safe and able to speak freely, where ideas can bounce around

Sitting up the front, actively listening and looking for ways to contribute – small, powerful gestures that show your team the meeting is important, it is OK to express a point of view, you want to be involved, you want others to feel involved and that you want to shape the conversation.

I also learned another important lesson that day – never underestimate the importance of showing respect to the presenter. Sitting up the front, participating in the discussion and actively listening are universal gestures that show the listener that they are appreciated and respected.  

Respect begets respect.  The way that a leader treats people within his or her orbit will directly relate to the way that those people treat the leader in return.

These simple acts remain, regardless of the situation, incredibly effective ways for a Project Leader to assert their authority.

Balancing Our Inward and Outward Focus

Our challenge is to balance the conflict between our instinctive need to look inwards (the primal instinct to seek anonymity and safety within the pack) and our need as Leaders to project our authority outwards (to stand at the front of the pack and take the most vulnerable seats in the house).

Project Leaders need to straddle the divide.

Inward-focused leaders see themselves as doing the ‘real work’ of finishing tasks, delivering outcomes and supporting their teams, whilst outward-focused leaders see themselves building bridges across the organisation, raising the priority of the team to a wider audience.

Inward-focused leaders may see those who focus outwards as attention seeking or self-promoters that lack attention to the details at hand, whilst outward-focused leaders see their inward-looking colleagues as uncooperative, resistant to change or simply naive.

We find ways to balance behaviors that focus our authority both inwards and outwards. Perceptions matter.

Gill Corkingdale calls on Project Leaders to find a balance between focusing inward and outward; to look at our personal default settings and critically assess whether they are providing the best fit for a given situation – and to be willing to change approach where needed.

The best approach is to know your default setting and then to make sure that it is not turning into your comfort zone…too much (focusing) on results can mean you neglect strategy and vision, and always being on hand with an answer for your team can mean they become lazy or de-motivated. Equally, too many cross-organisational initiatives can detract from your real job, while looking after yourself and your career alone can mean you lose supporters – Gill Corkingdale

Bringing It All Back Home

As Project Leaders, we are most effective when we sit up in the front row and speak loudly and clearly, understand how our words and actions impact our teams and wider community and find a balance between our inward and outward behaviors.

An inward focus that places a premium on delivering results and outcomes, coaching and mentoring team members, making sure they are engaged and willing to share their expertise and knowledge.

An outward focus that builds a strong external network, raises the profile and priority of the team and opens up opportunities for the team to influence broader discussions.

What’s your instinctive reaction when you see empty front row seats? Do you seek safety with your team or do you take the opportunity to sit up front and get involved?

How is this received by your team? How does your wider organization respond when you shape the conversation?

Disclaimer: This post was originally published on my blog as “Leadership Means Taking A Front Row Seat” (21 August 2012), but has now been re-written and polished.

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