Captain Kirk, Project Leader

March 15, 2012 by

Last week I came across a great article by Andrew Knapp of Forbes called Five Leadership Lessons from James T. Kirk. Being a Star Trek fan, naturally, I was going to read the article.

And since we at BrightWork are in the business of Project Management, I also wanted to see how those leadership lessons from Captain Kirk applied to project management.

Below are 5 leadership traits of Captain Kirk that Andrew points out, and what they mean to you, the project manager.


Five Leadership Lessons from James T. Kirk.

1. Never Stop Learning

This is applicable to all aspects of life really, but project management is one area that is very much about learning. In our experience, many project managers are in the category we call “Project Managers by Accident”. These are people thrown into the deep end with no real project management experience or knowledge.

So for these folks, the first step is to learn the project management discipline and what leadership style will work for them in their organization. But these are not the only PMs who should be learning. Even the most experienced project managers understand that no project will ever go according to plan.

In this light, project managers should always learn from the mistakes of previous projects and do better the next time – so they are not reinventing the wheel every time they initiate a new project.


2. Have Advisors With Different Worldviews

In a project management context, I think this one boils down to being a team player. Obviously, the project manager does have very important decisions to make and cannot defer responsibility, but something we state quite early in Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook is that we assume PMs to be “Project Managers, not Project Dictators.” By using a collaborative approach to project management you enable the team to know what has happened and what needs to happen, so they are empowered to give input on the project.

It’s easy for the “Project Manager knows best!” mentality to take over, but that approach could set the project on the fast track to failure. Remember the project team is there for a reason… and everyone involved with the project is working towards the same goal – project success! Allow team members to have a voice. They will feel like valued assets to the project, and probably like you more too.

The project sponsor has a lot invested in the project as well. It’s important for the project manager to keep the lines of communication open with the sponsor.

Sometimes a key parameter will be completely out of whack and the decision must be escalated to the project sponsor. A good project sponsor will always be ready and willing to assist and advise the PM when the “yellow” flags go up to help get it back in the “green”.


3. Be Part of the Away Team

As a project manager, a large part of your time is spent analyzing project data, adjusting and re-planning as necessary, and making informed decisions – after all, that is what you get paid to do.

However, a good project leader shouldn’t be afraid to get down into the trenches with the project team and pull a little weight too. I’m not talking about micro-managing every little thing, but being involved so as not to lose perspective.

Be a part of the team, understand what you have asked of them and how they are doing, and find out what their problems and issues are so you can help them as a leader.

The more you become involved, the more the team will trust your decision-making and buy into the project. As a project manager, you are also the project cheerleader, and that can mean rolling up your sleeves from time to time.


4. Play Poker, Not Chess

Chess is a game defined by rules. Poker is a game of probability.

Projects are much more a game of probability than they are rules – that’s why we need project managers! For example, a good PM will agree the scope, budget, resources, objectives, schedule of the project up front and is responsible for those parameters.

Sometimes though, one of those will change wildly mid-to-late in a project and even the best PM will have no control over it (e.g. resources available). In a game of poker, you might have the winning hand until the last card is drawn, and then you’re beaten by the river.

Same thing goes for a project – something unexpected can easily happen. A great PM would be aware of such risks and take mitigating actions along the way. Even if the project is under budget and ahead of schedule, you still must manage the risks – so plan accordingly, and don’t get burned by the river.


5. Blow up the Enterprise

It’s always a tough decision, but sometimes it’s a decision that needs to be made – killing a project.

A project can get to a point where the deliverables promised at the start cannot or will not be met. Perhaps the project has dragged on so long the need for the project doesn’t exist anymore or the end result will be obsolete.  Maybe the cost is so over-budget that the value of the project is not worth the price you paid.

As a project manager, you are ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the project. You get the praise for successful completion, but you also have to own it if it’s a failure. There may come a point at which you realize your resources will be better spent working on a different project with real business value. It’s never easy, but sometimes you just have to shut it down.


Billy Guinan

Billy is a Demand Generation Manager at BrightWork, where he helps customers successfully manage their projects and portfolios using SharePoint.

Billy is a graduate of the Villanova School of Business and holds a Master’s degree from National University of Ireland, Galway. Outside of BrightWork, he enjoys reading, trying to golf, and walking his pug named Nova.
Billy Guinan

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