We have all been brought up with stories that introduce us to heroes who show us larger-than-life courage and bravery in the face of adversity. Heroes that have it all figured out and strive for success, quest after quest. We all have a strong sense of what a hero represents - and for some, becoming one yourself seems like the ultimate goal in life. Harmless at first sight, but this continuous stereotyping might become disastrously unhelpful for anyone who steps into a leadership role. Especially looking into ‘PMO leadership’, which is a relatively new element in organizational structures, rethinking leadership is called to rescue. 

PMO leads generally have dual objectives: translate strategic decision-making into feasible projects (top-down) and engage project managers to deliver effectively within time-budget-resources (bottom-up). This dynamic of continuous top-down and bottom-up information and communication streams outside of the conventional hierarchy, calls for a very specific type of leadership.

A leader is often perceived as powerful, charismatic and influential, someone who adopts ‘heroic’ qualities when needed. So when becoming a leader, we are inspired to act in this way.  A hero is such a well-established persona in our daily lives, that its presence might have been taken for granted. A typical, and often recurring, element is the 'hero’s journey': he or she is called for adventure. After a first refusal, they agree to take up the challenge, they fight the enemy, get rewarded, hit the road back home and denouement takes place. Some undefined time later, the whole cycle starts again. Recognizable pattern, but often ignored is that the hero is acting all by him/herself. There is no team behind the hero, at most an accomplice that is often being left out and only called to help when the hero is in real trouble.

Translated back to leadership, this can result in an ‘authoritarian’ style, leaving leaders with an inflated sense of their own importance within the organization. They’ll put their own needs first, before the organization, its employees and its customers. But in the end, they'll end up fulfilling another lonely quest, which may not be the best approach for the individual nor the business.

Often perceived as an alternative is ‘servant leadership’. At type of leadership that has derived from Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay “The servant leader”, written in the early seventies. While traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one at the top of the pyramid, the servant-leader shares power while putting the needs of others first. Servant leaders turn the power pyramid upside down. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders serve first, they presumably unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees. Although ‘Performing’ and ‘engaging’ are considered to be desired characteristics, we should ask ourselves in ‘which’ direction we should be performing and engaging to ‘what’ mission? Leadership itself can only be shown by influencing people to think or act differently by promoting a better way. Only then, a PMO lead succeeds in translating company strategies into successful and effective projects that actually contribute to achieving those strategies. This means not sacrificing employee needs for short-term profits but also not endlessly providing to employees so much that it hurts the organization either. Additionally, as a PMO lead you do not want to be perceived as the selfish hero, but do you prefer to be the selfless servant instead?

Heroes, nor servants inspire us to reach our leadership goals within a PMO context. A third option arises.

The post-heroic leader

There is a continuum in between selfishness to selflessness, 4 elements can be identified that dissociates a post-heroic leader from a hero and a servant.

  • Stewardship: being available for and actively conduct colleagues in their professional performance, with support, practical guidance and persuasion. Post-heroic leaders are catalysts, facilitators and coaches, not solution-generators nor dictators.
  • Growth of the Other(s): unlocking the employee’s full potential by showing interest, being a lever to their development and giving them credit for their achievements. They put the needs of the organization, customers and employees ahead of their own needs without totally ignore them. Post-heroic leaders want to leave a legacy of a successful achievements behind them. They recognize the need of others to take credit for their own achievements.
  • Long Term Success: start with the end in mind. From a sound vision on your desired legacy, define and adhere to a steady road of intermediate sustainable gains towards achieving that target. No short-term rewards nor ignoring one’s own objectives.
  • Facilitate Strategy Realization: define your role, fit for purpose, in contributing to your organization’s realization of results.

Within this continuum, a PMO lead can find the tools to engage a group of project managers to contribute actively towards a company’s strategy. It is a type of leadership that is called ‘Post-heroic’, away from the old fashioned authoritarian style, but without ignoring the need for leadership. PMO leads do not aspire to be a superman, nor a butler. They are the coaches of today’s modern organizations. Coaching their teams towards greater goals. 

Lauranne Coelst

Lauranne Coelst
Consultant at Threon

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