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Leadership Is Taken, Not Given – Part 1: Doing the Al Haig Thing

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Project managers face a paradox. The ultimate responsibility of project success falls on us, so clearly we are the leaders. Yet, the matrix structure of organizations leaves us with very little tangible power—we can’t lead through traditional leverage (eg: hiring and firing) and, since we’re not in direct, day-to-day interaction with the project, we can’t even lead by example.

As easy as it is to get caught up in the hard skills that directly relate to our job description—making project documents, setting schedules, using project management technology, etc—this isn’t what separates the effective from the ineffective. The crux of project management really lies in the above paradox—in taking the lead on projects without being given any traditional power.

As a contributing author for a chapter on project leadership in The Keys to Our Success, Project Assistants CEO Gus Cicala has been touring the topic around the country. The next two blog posts will cover some of the highlighting points:


Doing the Al Haig Thing

On March 30th 1981, just 69 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan was shot. Though from our privileged vantage in the future we know that the president survived and had two of the greatest full terms in American presidential history, but we didn’t know that then. Anyone who was following the news that day knows that the country was roiled into a frightening turmoil.

We were still in the Cold War, and the Commander and Chief of the US Army had just been admitted to the hospital “close to death.” The Second-in-Command, Vice President George H. W. Bush, was on a plane without reliable communication. A reporter asked the deputy press secretary who was in charge; the secretary gave an unacceptably conciliatory response: “I cannot answer that question at this time.” The United States was without a finger on the controls for emergency military action, and just as importantly, without a mouthpiece to guard against weakness.

Secretary of State, Al Haig, took leadership upon himself. He immediately passed a note to the press secretary, ordering him to step down from the podium. Al Haig stepped up and stated unambiguously, “I am in control here.” In one of the most important pieces of misinformation in American history, he explained: “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order.”

In actuality, he was two more spots removed from the helm: the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate were still in front of him in line. But as sacrilegious as it seemed to many, the constitution was immaterial at the time—a great theoretical framework that had run into a few hours’ exception; a short window of needless impracticality.

What Al Haig taught us on that day is the crucial tenet, “Leadership is taken, not given.” You can’t always sit around waiting for permission, wondering why people would listen to you, and securing recourse.



No one on your team wants a project to fail any more than the American people wanted a lapse in presidency. You have to go over the head of office politics and detrimental self-interests or else you’ll be weighed down by the very things that’s unilaterally hated in workplaces. Your concern is project success, which ultimately benefits everyone in the organization. If you are sincere in this desire, there will be little reason for your team to mind you wearing the target.

And so, regardless of what the manual says, regardless of the fact that you can’t say “do it or else”, you can still take control of projects and earn your coworkers’ respect by doing so.

In Part 2, we talk about how to maintain control of projects by discussing the “defining moments” for projects and their leaders.

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Posted in General Project Management, Project Leadership | Tagged , , , ,

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