An orchestra needs a conductor, a movie needs a director, and a project needs a leader. No matter what the title, the project leader is the one person who coordinates the direction of the project, and is empowered to make decisions and take action. A project leader usually has internal or external clients to answer to, but he or she is still the one person who has direct and primary responsibility for the project. The leader provides the vision that will pull all of the parts into a unified whole. The leader helps each team member understand how his or her contribution will fit into that unified whole.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that the project leader is necessarily the most important person on the team, but I am saying that the project leader is key to a successful outcome. The best project leaders know that a big part of their role is to make it possible for the team to deliver an outstanding product.
When management is reluctant to empower its employees or to assign project leadership, the results will be predictably mediocre, and you can expect to find anxiety among the team members. Creative professionals feel more motivated and do a better job when there is a clear chain of command so that definitive answers can be had, actions can be taken, and progress can be made.
There are some schools of thought that it's best to let members of a creative team work "democratically" without an assigned leader. I'm sure there must be cases where that kind of works, but in a professional setting where time is money, order and structure provide an undeniable advantage.
It's also important to assign a qualified person as the leader. By their nature, top creative professionals want to grow their skills, and quite often the only growth path they may be aware of is into a management or leadership role. Unfortunately, the skills that help a person become a top creative professional do not necessarily prepare them to lead or manage others. When a top creative pro is put into a leadership position for which they're not prepared, expect anxiety all around. The tragic result can be that the top creative person feels they must leave the organization to save face instead of stepping back from the leadership role. I learned that lesson the hard way by promoting a very talented Designer into a Creative Director role. I lost this person within months because the new role took her away from her strength and put her in situations that caused a kind of stress that she was not prepared for. With proper guidance and training the transition can be made successfully, but all too often it's the Peter Principle in action.
It is very important to make sure the person who is moving into a leadership or management role understands how their role will change. More often than not I have found that top creatives resist moving in that direction once they understand that it means they may be doing less of the hands-on work they love, and spending more time supporting others. One good way to help a person prepare for leadership and test their tolerance for it is to assign him or her to lead smaller projects. In practice, most projects can be broken out into a number of smaller projects that will be coordinated to create the whole. For each of these sub-projects, there should be a qualified individual assigned the leadership role and ownership of the outcome of that sub-project.
One indicator of a great leader is how he or she speaks about the team. A great team leader will refer to the project and the team members in an inclusive way with the word "our," such as "our project" and "our designer," whereas a lesser leader will use the possessive term "my," such as "my designer." The difference indicates whether the leader considers himself or herself a part of the team or above the team. The most effective leaders act unquestionably as a part of the team and feel a responsibility to support the team.
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