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

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 certainly can’t lead through traditional leverage, like hiring and firing. And, since we’re not in direct, day-to-day interaction with the project, we can’t even lead by example.

We’re often overly focused on the hard skills that directly relate to our job description–making project documents, setting schedules, using project management technology, etc. But this isn’t what separates the effective from the ineffective. The crux of project management really lies in the above paradox. How can you take the lead on projects without 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 highlight the hotspots that define project leaders.

Doing the Al Haig Thing

On March 30th 1981, just 69 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan was shot. From our privileged vantage in the future we know that the president survived. Anyone following the news that day, though, remembers the frightening implications for the country as a whole.

We were still in the Cold War, and the Commander and Chief of the US Army was “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 US had no finger on the controls for emergency military action. Just as importantly, there was no 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.” He explained: “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order.” And herein lies one of the most important pieces of misinformation in American history.

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. The document was 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 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. Your teammates hate these anyway, so you should not pay them heed at important moments. Your concern is project success, which ultimately benefits everyone in the organization. If this is genuinely your end-goal, then your team will appreciate you wearing the target on your back.

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.

Our full white paper on Leadership Is Taken, Not Given is available here.