Becoming a Pace-line Leader: Why Project Leadership Differs From Project Management

by Phil Harkins and Keith Hollihan

Pace-line leadership can be an effective business strategy.

All leaders face the same difficult quandary: how much time should they devote to being involved in projects. The concept of pace-line leadership offers a metaphor for describing how leaders can most effectively spend their time on projects. Consider the case of Lance Armstrong in order to understand pace line leadership.

In the summer of 2004, Lance Armstrong became the first cyclist to ever win the Tour de France six times. Most people know his incredible story—a cancer survivor who not only beat the disease that almost killed him but also went on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. Armstrong’s fans are aware of the brutal effort required to complete the Tour de France—a 3,390 kilometer cycling race over 21 days, at the end of which the winner is separated from his rivals by mere minutes if not seconds. Many would argue that the Tour de France is one of the greatest tests of individual athletic accomplishment ever devised. But this emphasis on the individual challenge is missing a much larger point about how the Tour is actually won. As Lance Armstrong would be the first to admit, the Tour de France is fundamentally and unequivocally a team event.

If you watch the Tour de France for even a few minutes, you will notice just how closely the members of each cycling team ride together. Despite the amazing speeds and immense distances involved, cyclists of the same team “sit” inches from each other’s back wheel, one bike after the other, in what is known as a pace line.

They do this because of the physics of aerodynamics. The lead cyclist expends almost twice as much energy as his teammates by cutting through the air. This effort creates a slipstream that literally drags the rest of the team along in what is known as drafting. It’s not unlike the way the lead duck flies at the apex of a flock of migrating ducks. When the lead cyclist is finally exhausted by his efforts, he falls to the back of the pace line to recover and is replaced by someone else on the team, who continues to push and drive the others with all his might. Together, the members of a cycling team create and sustain speeds unimaginable for an individual cyclist. In fact, a breakaway rider who is even 10 minutes or more ahead in the race can be caught easily by a strong team using this pace-line concept.



Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest athletes of our era, but that does not explain how he won an unprecedented six Tour de France championships. The secret to Lance Armstrong’s success was his ability to form, lead, and be supported by the best team. As a group, Armstrong’s team stuck to its pace line with a discipline that no other team showed, exhausted all who tried to keep up with their blistering pace, and chased down and passed any rivals who dared to launch a challenge. When the Tour finally rode into Paris, Lance Armstrong, surrounded by his teammates, crossed the finish line having demolished all challengers over the course of three weeks.

Similarly the real estate giant, RE/MAX, has figured out how to leverage its founder and chairman Dave Liniger’s time on projects: by being a pace-line leader.

Liniger basically plays the pace-line leader on major projects that will make a difference to the business. He gets involved early on in high-leverage/high-payoff projects that have a direct impact on growing or managing the dream. Then he jumps in and spends up to 90 percent of his time on leading the charge. When he does, he exerts all the might of company’s resources across the network. Liniger gets clear definition on acceptance criteria and gets the right people involved at the right time (great project management principles.) When it builds momentum and has to be run as a project, he appoints the person who has been closest to him on the project, lets go of the reins completely, and applauds from the sidelines.

Pace-line leadership is becoming a significant new leadership style and strategy for senior leaders. There are thousands of books on project management but none of any note on project leadership. The role of top leader involvement is to provide muscle without interference so that projects can get a “fast start” (e.g., allocated resources, priority status, and overall focus). The other significant moment of project leadership is the “handoff” at the right time, to the right lieutenant, and with the right resources.

The last significant point here is that leaders (and companies) need to pick the right projects for the leader to be involved in. Such projects should be top-focus areas that have measurable impact on growing or managing the dream and that will be unifying—adding to pride and positioning.

Why Project leadership is different from project management.
Productivity on important projects is a function of fast start. This is a well-known principle of project management. As with the Tour de France, RE/MAX knows well that getting traction on high-leverage projects is all about jump-starting the project with senior leadership involvement.

What Dave Liniger models and other leaders follow at RE/MAX is a “come play golf with me” approach. Rather than telling people what they should do to get projects started, Dave takes the lead, showing the way, becoming a “pace-line” leader. In order to make this happen, he clears his desk of other things; gets the right people involved on the project; sets aggressive schedules; and then, at the right time, when the project has torque, steps aside and becomes a cheerleader and supporter of the project manager and the team. His approach demonstrates the difference between project leadership and project management. This is a critical way in which leaders get high-leverage projects off the ground. Below are the basic principles of pace line leadership:

  • Leaders get out in front and drive the rest of the team when it comes to project implementation.
  • A growth-oriented company leader must be open to hearing the ideas of others, recognize an idea that will be useful, and seize the opportunity to drive the initial momentum of the project.
  • The “pace-line” leader identifies passionate champions—people who believe in the idea as much as he or she does but are more technically capable of executing it—and teams up with them, driving the idea forward.
  • Once you decide to lead a project, be 100 percent behind it from the get-go.
  • Emphasize and pursue development in your employees. Make it a priority for your company to have the best-qualified and best-trained people in the business. Use your project pace line to test and to develop leadership in others.
  • Run your company like a volunteer organization, not a dictatorship. Listen closely to what your employees out in the field think and say.
  • The best ideas don’t come from the top. The best ideas come from those closest to the customer.
  • In an everybody wins culture, people need free rein to act in their own best interests under the rubric of clear principles. Encourage people to be creative and energetic in their pursuit of success. In a high-trust, entrepreneurial environment, this will only benefit your organization.
  • When looking into a new idea, choose your early explorers carefully. It is critical to get accurate scouting reports of the terrain ahead before sending a team into a project.
  • Create an exciting environment around a project. Make it a place where people can feel welcome to share their ideas, needs, and experiences. The project will become an embodiment of something that everyone wants to see succeed.
  • The finished product should reflect the people and the spirit of the company, thereby strengthening the corporate culture.

Dave Liniger is a project-oriented leader. He is passionate and energized by new endeavors, which feed his insatiable curiosity and in turn excite and energize everyone around him. Liniger’s focus is always on growing the dream; however, he balances that with people who are more skilled than he is at managing the dream. When leading a project, put the right team together. If it is not right from the beginning, readjust the team until it is the best it can be before handing the project off to its new leaders.

The leader’s primary role in the pace line is to get involved early to fully understand the issues, create momentum for the project, and ensure that it has the signature quality of the company. Once the project has the momentum it needs, let the team take it over. Then the leader’s role is to provide the resources and the mandate for the team to take the model they created and improve on it every day.

Finally, just like Lance Armstrong’s indomitable team, RE/MAX is able to accelerate its growth and put distance on the competition through its pace-line project culture due to its trust-rich culture. Leaders should, like Dave Liniger, create a trust-rich environment for all employees. A trust-rich environment is one in which senior officers are able to flourish in their roles while the leader is consumed in a project.


From the authors of Everybody Wins: The Story and Lessons Behind RE/MAX. Click here to order.

Phil Harkins is President and CEO of Linkage, Inc., a global organizational and leadership development consulting company. In his own consulting and executive coaching work, Harkins focuses on working with senior leaders and teams at Fortune 500 companies worldwide. Widely recognized as an authority on leadership, communication, and growth, Harkins has delivered hundreds of speeches at public and in-house conferences, seminars, and programs around the globe. He is also the author of Powerful Conversations (McGraw-Hill, 1999) as well as the co-editor of The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching (Wiley, January 2005).

Keith Hollihan has co-authored several business and leadership books. He has also written dozens of articles for a wide range of leadership experts including such notable figures as C.K. Prahalad, David Gergen, Ken Blanchard, Noel Tichy, Marshall Goldsmith Michael Hammer and Sally Helgesen. Hollihan is also the co-editor of Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Path to Leadership (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, May 2005).

 
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