How to Be a Leader, Not Just a Manager

To guide a team to success, you need to be both.

The personality traits that draw people to the construction industry may make it difficult for them to become effective leaders, according to Ed Rowell, a senior consultant at FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership.

“People who are attracted to construction rely on their senses more than on their intuition; they are thinkers more than feelers. They like their world organized, and they are good at working on a schedule and staying ahead of that schedule,” Rowell said. They struggle when it comes to leadership because they need to control things. “They have a built-in tendency to think there’s one right way to do it, which is their way.”

But leadership is people based. It starts with self-awareness; managers have to know their strengths so they can build on them, and understand their weaknesses so they can mitigate them.

They must also have an awareness of other people and what they can do. “Our teammates are not other tools that we use to accomplish a job. They are people who can think, and when they are deployed with respect and given the tools they need to succeed, they usually surprise us with what they accomplish,” said Rowell. “That’s a whole lot more rewarding than the old command-and-control type of leadership.” He noted that even the military hasn’t practiced command-and-control leadership for several decades; the construction industry is one of the last holdouts.

Developing the right skills

People heading construction teams or projects need both leadership and management skills. To define the latter, Harvard business professor and author John Kotter uses the acronym POC — planning, organizing and controlling outcomes.

“Project managers are exceptionally good at that,” noted Rowell, who likened them to sound technicians at concerts. A technician has to know which dials to adjust up and down to achieve the best sound. A construction project manager has to know his or her people to understand when to apply some pressure (and sometimes when to alleviate the pressure) to meet project schedules.

“We think of leadership like athletic ability. Some people are truly gifted athletes, but even average people who have the right work ethic with the right training can become significantly better and very effective as athletes."

Ed Rowell, Senior Consultant at FMI’s Center for Strategic Leadership

Leadership skills are different, but just as vital to a manager’s performance. Kotter uses the acronym SAM — setting direction, aligning resources and motivating and inspiring — to define these skills.

“Setting direction is not the same as giving direction,” said Rowell. “It is creating a compelling ‘why.’ Why is this job important? Why does it matter? We all want to get paid, but what matters beyond this?”

Construction managers lead when they remind people of the significance of the work they’re doing, whether it’s building a hospital to take care of sick children or an attractive shopping center where people in the area can enjoy doing their errands. “Sometimes, the ‘why’ may be, “We’re doing this because we like it, it’s fun and rewarding to walk away and see something that wasn’t there before because of what we did,” said Rowell.

Aligning resources includes everything from making sure crews have the right materials on site to bringing in enough people to do a job properly. It’s also ensuring they have the right equipment. Managers who are leaders don’t tell people to work safely and then expect them make do with old safety equipment.

Motiving and inspiring workers means understanding the people who are working for them. “You want to know them well enough to know if someone is off their game and not immediately assume that they’re slacking off. It means caring about your people and understanding that each person is motivated differently,” Rowell added.

Anyone can learn to be a leader, according to Rowell.

“We think of leadership like athletic ability. Some people are truly gifted athletes, but even average people who have the right work ethic with the right training can become significantly better and very effective as athletes,” he said. That goes for leaders as well.


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.


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