What I Learned About Project Leadership from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

One common characteristic of all successful project teams is the high amount of energy the team members apply toward getting the project done, on target, on time and on budget. According to Sun Tzu, in chapter five of The Art of War, the project leader’s role is to help the project team develop the energy required to be successful.

Sun Tzu begins his chapter on energy by reminding us that effective project leadership principles are the same whether leading a small project or a large project. Effectively heading up a large project is “merely a question of dividing up their numbers.” In other words, building effective project teams is important. Another noteworthy aspect of leading a larger project is the necessity for effective communication. In short, the project leadership provided should be the same for large and small project teams, but in larger projects the leader must institute effective “signs and signals” in order to align the entire project team.

The real lesson about energy begins with the advice that to secure success for their project teams, the wise project leader must use “maneuvers direct and indirect.” Direct project leadership will get your project team into the game, but indirect leadership is needed to ensure long term project success. In project leadership, there is direct and indirect leadership, and “who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?”

Direct leadership is all about the desired results of the organization and the accomplishments of its people. Direct leadership is important, and focusing only on results usually leads only to short term success. Long term success, on the other hand, is usually affected through indirect leadership.

Indirect leadership speaks to the culture of the organization and the environment in which the mission is accomplished by the people. Indirect leadership often comes in the form of rewards, incentives, training, education, participation and communication. However, just like direct leadership, focusing only on indirect leadership is also a short-sighted approach that seldom yields long term success. The great project leaders have mastered the art of combining direct and indirect leadership to energize their project teams.

Sun Tzu tells of how a wise project leader “does not require too much of individuals” and “takes individual talent into account, and uses each man (woman) according to his capabilities.” This requires a project leader to know his/her team mates, and that takes a lot of effort. This effort is well spent, as Sun Tzu writes that the “energy developed by good fighting men is as the momentum of a round stone rolled down a mountain thousands of feet in height.”

Whether you lead a large or small project team, how much do you consciously focus on using both direct and indirect project leadership tactics? Be an effective project leader today by using both direct and indirect project leadership.

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