By Benedict Pinches

There has been a lot written on ‘leadership’, but I’ve always been drawn to this five-word sentence uttered by Napoleon Bonaparte (presumably in French).
Whether you believe that leadership is a simple act that needs no analysis, or a complex combination of skills that you could study for a lifetime, the ability to give followers hope is an essential part of any winning formula. I suspect that Napoleon would be more on the ‘just do it’ side of leadership, but he was clearly an inspiring man, whose ability to instil confidence in his troops (and country) led to numerous victories against all the odds. Wellington said that his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 soldiers for he inspired confidence from privates to field marshals.

Relevance to Programme Management

If you are heading up a large programme of work, comprising many different projects and business-as-usual activities, you need this ability to deal hope as much as Napoleon. We have all heard about the need for programme managers to ‘sell the vision’ and it is certainly important for any programme leader to be able to convey the tangibility of the desired outcome of the programme to their troops working away in the trenches. Often, that ability to convey Hope is closely allied to a talent for simplification, so that a complex endeavour can be reconstructed as clear objective. I was lucky enough to hear Alan Barnard from ‘Campaign It!’ share his knowledge of campaigning with a room full of project managers last month, and was struck by his emphasis on the need to ‘bring your cause to life’, which I think is a key activity for any programme leader.

About fifteen years ago I experienced this leadership activity in a very direct way. I was working for a start-up telecom company at the time, and one of our programmes was behind schedule, which was impacting our ability to get sales. As the programme office lead, I reported into the Programme Director and we decided to reach out into the contract market and secure the services of a well-thought-of programme manager with a track record of delivery. The plan was to introduce this programme manager at a programme re-launch event, which was going to be loud and upbeat and attended by all programme team members and sub-contractors, as well as the start-up company directors. At 8 o’clock on the morning of the event I received a phone call from the contract programme manager saying that he had decided that he didn’t want to take the job after all, and apologising for the short notice given. I was very concerned that this would negatively impact the morale of the programme team, already under pressure from having missed their deadlines, and shared these concerns with the Programme Director. Luckily, he had an international sporting background, and applied his tacit knowledge of leadership to take over the presenter role at the event. Putting himself forward as the leader of the programme, he conveyed an amazing vision of its successful outcome, and had everyone applauding and vowing to make up the lost time. In the end, the programme delivered to schedule and was able to unlock the potential of the start-up and begin to realise customer opportunities.

Dealers in Spin?

Of course, politicians are also highly skilled in getting people behind their vision, and often play back what they understand the voters want following market research and focus groups. This kind of empty promising has led to a documented increase in voter apathy over the past few decades and general disillusionment with the whole political process.

So why was my experience at the start-up different? Well, in addition to dealing in hope, the programme director from my example made himself accountable and staked his reputation on the future success of a previously failing enterprise. He stuck his head above the parapet in a way that Napoleon would have been proud of, and made it clear that he was going to lead the programme from the front rather than directing from the back. The risk analyst and retired hedge fund manager Nassim Taleb talks about the importance of having ‘skin in the game’ in his book The Black Swan, and urges his readers to assess the sincerity of political orators on the basis of their personal involvement with the subject they are discussing.
In ancient Egyptian times, architects who designed a building that subsequently collapsed and killed its occupants would be put to death so that a clear message could be transmitted to others in their trade. In the days before health and safety legislation, this provided a crude but effective reminder for visionary artists who may have been more focussed on aesthetics than practicality, and the result is that some of their buildings lasted for many hundreds of years. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg from Oxford University puts forward a similar, though less draconian, argument in his paper on Quality Control in which he proposes that experts who are paid handsomely to forecast infrastructure programme costs and get it wrong should be seen as being personally responsible and suffer fines and possible imprisonment. Already this approach is being reviewed by the Australian government, and policy being changed to increase accountability.

Paradox

So programme leaders should not just be ‘Dealers in Hope’, but should also be accountable and responsible individuals with integrity and principles. Like many of these things, there is a paradox at play here, and we need to be comfortable with thinking about two opposing thoughts simultaneously. Just like Napoleon, who possessed great intellect but did not study the battle strategies of Hannibal and Alexander the Great, we need to inspire great hope but be grounded in practical reality.