Leaders, Choose Your Helicopters: The Obligations of Empowered Management

Posted on February 22, 2013

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Jim GrohmanI was recently asked what appeared to be a simple question: What does a project manager do? On the surface, it seems like there should be an easy enough answer. But as I thought about my reply, it occurred to me that—if you take out particular project specifics—it’s a tough one that requires some thought regarding leadership and the sometimes not-easily-defined responsibilities that accompany such a charge.

The question made me think about ex-Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady—the fighter pilot whose F-16 was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. The story of his rescue by Marines after a number of days hiding in Serb territory features a daring airlift plan and heroics on the ground. What’s lesser known to the public, however, is the controversy that followed the event regarding leadership decisions that were made prior to the ultimately successful mission.

The story is that the Marine Corp, at the time, was for a number of reasons deeply focused on agility and responsiveness—and reducing micromanagement. Decision-making was focused on speed and decentralization, pushing out tactical decisions to those on the ground in order to increase accurate decision-making and reduce time delays that might jeopardize the success of operations. Yet, it was in this environment that, in the case of the O’Grady rescue mission, the Lieutenant—that’s the boss of the boss of the man in charge of executing the actual mission—decided to get on the helicopter. Not only that, the boss of the boss of the boss also got onboard to supervise the mission.

Despite the positive outcome of the mission, military historians, observers and strategists at the time greatly debated and discussed the decisions of the senior leadership to insert themselves on the helicopters. As a former-Marine myself, the controversy has always been of great interest to me—and one that now influences my thinking about the role of the leaders and managers in the organizations I work with on a daily basis. 

Without getting into the details of that mission—or of the kind of projects particular to event management—in the context of reducing micromanagement, the overarching question of “when to get on the helicopter” is one that requires an answer. And here’s mine: Whenever a leader thinks it’s necessary.

I’m not meaning to be vague here—anything but. The fact is that while one can argue about a decision by a leader to get directly involved in a project’s execution based on specific issues (i.e. will his or her participation positively or negatively influence outcomes), one cannot argue that it’s a leader’s option to make the call. More to the point, it’s the leader’s responsibility to make that call.

Of course there are consequences to consider about getting overly involved. In a management world where one is trying to improve response times, or to develop staff autonomy and confidence, getting too close to execution can be a detriment. Also, people have to fail sometimes to iterate and grow—and a leader should be aware of all these things.

But a leader (be it a senior executive or project manager) must also judge whether his or her direct involvement may contribute to the success of an operation—especially to projects crucial to supporting an organization’s overall success regarding its mission and objectives. If this is the case, the leader has the obligation to take direct action—there is zero wiggle room.

So to the question about the role of a leader (including the project manager)— the answer begins there in that difficult and sometimes lonely place that requires nuanced decision-making regarding one’s relationship with a task in relation to its execution. But that’s why leaders are leaders. Ultimately, they get to ride on the helicopters they want to.

Jim Grohman provides project teams and managers leadership and guidance to ensure flawless delivery. A former Major with the United States Marine Corps, Jim is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is certified as a PMI Project Management Professional.

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