« On-Line Project Management Tools | Main | Agile project managment »


Recently I was asked to define the difference between a Project Leader and a Project Manager.

To me the two have always been inseparable; a good Project Manager should also be a good Leader. I know many will argue the case that they have met PM's that turned out to be poor leaders. 

My point is that they are not good project managers.  These are managers who simply follow the rules, making sure the right forms and reports are filled out and filed as expected.

The question has stayed with me for days, so I decided to define good Project Leadership - the qualities that every good project manager should posses.

Let's start by defining leadership or Leader:

  • Directing resources to a successful end goal
  • Creating a vision that can be followed by everyone involved
  • Inspiring others to that goal
  • Building a team and inspiring them
  • Listening not only to those who would be considered superiors but team members as well
  • Addressing any issues, positive or negative, in timely manner
  • Willing to overcome obstacles


If experience has thought me anything, it is this: ideas are easy, it’s execution that’s hard. Keeping these principles in mind let’s look the practical side of how to achieve the goals of leadership in the role of a Project Manager.


Define a clear goal

Be it internal sponsors or an outside client understand what they are trying to achieve.  Get involved in the discussions early.  Help them develop the vision of what they are trying to achieve.  This vision should be simple and clear, one that can be easily communicated to the project team.

If you are a project manager in the IT department, or any technical discipline, make sure you understand the business side of the project.  No one ever said let’s create a new system just for the sake of having a new system.  There are always reasons such as changing market conditions, legislative reasons, a potential to gain profitability.  Once you understand these goals, make sure to relate them to your team, this will help to motivate them as well as make it easer to develop the detailed analysis.


Build your Team and inspire them

As project managers we don’t always have the luxury of selecting whom we get to work with on our projects.  But if you are lucky enough to have that option, get to know the team members and make sure to select them not only on their level of skill, but their compatibility and willingness to work with others. 

Give them the freedom to communicate freely and make sure they understand that when they have to report negative results they will not be punished for it.

Whenever I am faced with a new team I always like to start of with a little speech. 

“In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after it’s launch, due to a failure in the O-ring seal.  It was a design defect.  Two years earlier an engineer who worked on the space shuttle tried to warn his superiors of this possibility.  Afraid of negativity they demoted and eventually fired him.   I promise you that if you find any problems on this project, or have any suspicions that there is a possibility of a risk, you will not be punished for it.  In fact I encourage all members of my team to speak up, the sooner we address any issues the less impact they will have on the project.”

Cohesive, productive teams feel trust and support throughout the project. You and other team members must earn trust.  Discourage rumours and backstabbing, these will kill trust and ultimately the project will suffer.


Stand up those to whom you report

I don’t encourage negative confrontation, but if you feel that your mangers, sponsors or customers are asking you to take the project in the wrong direction be willing to say No.  This doesn’t mean starting an argument but you can initiate a dialog.  With proper facts persuade those you report to, to do what you feel is right.   You must do so with conviction and show that you are willing to stand by your principles.  Use every negotiating tactic you have at your disposal.

This is often one of he biggest obstacles a project manager will face, your willingness to address these issues as soon as possible will go a long way towards building your respect in the organization.

Communicate clearly and often

Spell everything out for your team upfront, be honest.  Don’t try to paint a positive picture, give your team the positive and negative of the challenges they will face.  Unless you are honest with everyone your credibility will be destroyed quickly.

Be willing to take ideas from your team, perform risk brain storming sessions to expose any weakness in the project and act to correct them.

Give feedback, positive and negative.  People like to know when they are performing well. Even if you cannot offer tangible rewards, a pat on the back can significantly raise someone’s morale.  On the other hand you must be willing to address any issues when team members are underperforming.  I have seen too many managers unwilling to confront an employee hoping the problem will resolve itself, only to find that it keeps getting worse until the situation spirals out of control.  Any issues must be confronted immediately, but remember to address the issue and not the person.  

If you have a team member that is constantly behind schedule ask them why. Don’t simply accuse them of slacking off.   Sometimes there are circumstances you may not be aware of, and together you can resolve the problem.  In the end you must make it clear that the continuation of the problem will not be tolerated. If necessary don’t be afraid to let them go.

Remember - feedback should be constant, don’t wait until staff review comes around to let people know how they are perfuming.    Periodic reviews should be used to officially recap what you have been telling your resources all along, there should be no surprises.


Build realistic expectations and goals

If you are given insufficient resources (people, equipment, time, budget…) make sure you take this into account and build a plan that will be realistic.  If you simply decide to follow what you are told, you are not a leader.  You must be willing to create a plan that guarantees success, otherwise you will lose everyone’s respect and your project will fail.

Remember to always ask yourself, am I doing the right thing, and inspire others to do the same.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (2)

Just wanted to say I found you website and pointers very useful. Thanks

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

Thank you for the encouragement, I am currently busy managing a large project at American Express so my submissions are slow lately. But I am working on my review of online PM tools so please do check back once in a while.

September 20, 2010 | Registered CommenterJason Freih

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>