Home » Change Management » Project Managers Use That Leadership Vacuum To Take The Initiative

“There are usually about five people at a company that make all the important decisions.” The Inscrutable Mad Men of Silicon Valley, Businessweek, September 26-October 2, 2011, page 49.

I use to believe this. Instead, I’ve found too many organizations that didn’t really seem to have functional leadership. This situation, however, is often an opportunity for the project manager to exercise some needed initiative. We can get things done because more senior management is either distracted or otherwise roadblocked by other senior leaders competing against their initiatives.

Project Managers Use That Leadership Vacuum To Take The InitiativeMost of the big changes I’ve made in project management and organizations didn’t come when I had a fancy title and a corner office. Instead they came when I was buried in the organization and was just trying to change one or two simple but critical things. Part of it was also that I was in a good place at a good time when the organization needed someone to take action, and so I took the initiative.

In some cases the most senior managers had to work through agents to influence the organization (kind of like Norse gods). One of my best “helps” was when one VP would say to other managers “what did Bruce think about this?” That subtle question gave me influence, aimed people my way, because they knew that the senior manager wanted my assurance that something proposed made sense. The VP didn’t have to express a particular position or push an agenda. Instead she would send them my way because she knew what I was trying to do and where I stood on certain issues and they matched her own interests.

One of my most cherished moments was when a CIO, standing next to me as we listened to a presentation, said very casually to me: “I would never have believed that any one person could accomplish so much in such a short period of time.” I was able to earn such a compliment in large part because that CIO, while fighting the immobilizing organizational politics, allowed me to step into the leadership vacuum and do things that needed to be done. He didn’t have to actively support what I was doing, only act as the arbiter of competing initiatives and let things fall my way when it was how he wanted things to go. If I had not been independently taking the initiative he would have had less options to choose from when making decisions.

We all often complain about the inability of more senior management to provide clear leadership and guidance in all the areas where we want such guidance. However, these situations are often opportunities for us to exercise leadership, regardless of our level in the organization. Take the initiative in these situations, and we may find we have more support and can get more done than if we waited for formal guidance.

Have you ever taken the initiative without first getting formal approval from more senior management?

Thank you for sharing!

4 thoughts on “Project Managers Use That Leadership Vacuum To Take The Initiative

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Jitendra Gill • While you were absolutely bullish on the subject, your article also touched another very imp aspect of the subject – acceptability/ openness of the senior management. Initiatives may go in vain and end up disappointing the employees unless Sr Management shows thier acceptance and encourages employees to voice their ideas. Of course, the better the business case (reflecting business value), the brighter the chances of getting it accepted. Thanks for sharing the title ‘flawness consulting’; its added into my reading list 🙂

    John Blakowski, CPIM, CIRM • Bruce, Your ‘opportunities for us to exercise leadership’ sounds like the tried and true adadge ‘It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission’ (Grace Hopper). I agree with that as long it is thought out, ‘reflecting business value’, as Jitendra noted. Many times Senior Mgmt., doesn’t have the time or skills to know all the best or even better resoltuions. That is middle mgmt./project leads’ job.

    David Holland • And frequently, the locus of authority will eventually reassert itself. You really have to understand the structure of the organization for this to work. Without complete delegation of authority and responsibility, it is hard to reap the fruits of leadership labors, in a vacuum or otherwise.

    Linn Richardson • yes, indeed. – as the cloud technology grows and the team,PM, and SR Management become ever more diverse in culture and location the business organization has a much harder job making sure that we are all on the same page. Part of the PMs communication plan should include deliverables in communication traffic that goes both ways – and sometimes depending on schedule constraints it IS easier to ask for forgiveness. There have been times I have asked for clarity and upper management buy in and it has taken MONTHS. They often try for plausible deniability with the client than a clear directive.
    Remember that they live in the political landscape of shifting agreements and we live in the land of actualizing the outcome of their bright ideas and making them real. It is our job to keep it real

    Bruce Benson • Linn: “deliverables in communication traffic that goes both ways” — very key especially when having to ask for forgiveness (thanks John for the Adm Hopper quote) or taking your lumps (per David) when leadership comes back on line. Yes, it could all eventually be in vain (Jitendra) but that is always the risk but with the notion, from experience, that taking the risk often begats benefits that exceed the occasional admonishment. I had some bosses who had to admonish me publicly while privately admitting it was a good thing to do.

    Great feedback, thanks.


  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Brad Satz • Absolutely! This can lead to great things if you are capable and the senior management trusts you. Most companies unknowing survive on this technique in my experience.

    Bruce Benson • Brad,

    Thanks. I’ve also found that trust comes when we take a chance and go for it. Management might not yet have any opinion on us, but they’ll often let us go and see what happens.

    Thanks for the feedback.


  3. Bruce,
    I think you are dead on with this article. There are so many opportunities for project managers, or anybody in the organization, to take a leadership position. There is a huge leadership vacuum in all organizations waiting for people like you to step in. Many consultants don’t appreciate that their clients are expecting them to “lead them through change.” Consulting firms such as CSC need to spend more time training their people on the fundamentals of leadership so that they can step in when they see the vacuum. Keep up the good work!

    1. Bruce Benson says:


      The best book I’ve read on consulting was “Flawless Consulting” by Peter Block. The emphasis was as much on leadership and how to manage the typical human and emotional interactions as it was on consulting analysis and checklists. I consider it a great book for any manager as so many management books never deal with the human competitive and game playing side of things.

      Thanks for the feedback.


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