Why do project managers need to be leaders?

This article introduces some ideas of what leadership is, qualities to become a successful leader and the fact that seniority does not mean leadership.

Leadership in projects

There is a common saying “projects are people” and there are numerous stakeholders involved in any project: the project team, suppliers, customers, users, and others affected by the project. People are busy with their own lives and their own priorities and it can be a challenge, even for seasoned project managers to get them to do the work we need them to do and by the deadline. We can’t force people to work on or be enthusiastic about our projects, so we have to find a way to motivate them to want to work on and actively support the project. This is where leadership skills come in and they are key to achieving project success. But the idea of “leadership” can be daunting for new project managers, especially those who are a little reserved or more “introvert” by nature.

Qualities of a good leader

We often think of leaders as being charismatic; confident in speaking up; pushing themselves forward; being forceful and articulate in their opinion, and energising or motivating people with their gregarious nature. But there are many different styles of leadership and lots of examples of successful leaders who have adopted an alternative approach: Barack Obama, Melissa Mayer, Bill Gates, and Gareth Southgate, to name a few. They have become successful leaders, not by pretending to be something they are not, but by playing to their own strengths and abilities.

Qualities that can make for a successful leader also include empathy and two-way communication (listening, as well as speaking), which help leaders build trust and cooperation with their team. These abilities will help the leader adapt their style to meet the needs of their individual team members or the situation at hand. They are useful skills for negotiation and conflict resolution too. Understanding the other person’s point of view doesn’t necessarily mean rolling over or acquiescing, but it can help find common ground or new ways to collaborate. By listening to and taking on board and valuing differences of opinion instead of asserting one person’s idea that the team is expected to follow, what emerges is a vision that the whole team has contributed to creating and therefore buys into and believes in.

Remaining calm and collected, particularly in crisis situations when the team looks to the leader for reassurance or guidance, is also important, as is carefully considering all the available information and not jumping to conclusions or making rash decisions. A preference for avoiding the spotlight can allow leaders to share the glory of success with their team and be quick to give credit where credit is due, which is a powerful motivational factor. When starting in project management, it is important to find your own style of leadership that you feel comfortable with and one that plays to your own strengths. One way of exploring your leadership style is to consciously use or develop leadership qualities or techniques outside of the leadership role – they are powerful qualities that support teams and collaboration in any context.

Seniority, the same as leadership?

A final hurdle, that can prevent project managers from stepping up to the role of leader, is the misconception that seniority is the same as leadership. One of my apprentices wrote recently of a project she managed where the project team was composed entirely of senior managers in her organisation. She invited everyone for a project kick-off meeting and sat waiting for one of those senior managers to take the lead and start the meeting. In the moments of silence that followed, she suddenly realised that everyone in the room was looking at her to explain why they were there and what they needed to do. In other words, they were looking to her for leadership.

Define leadership

The APM defines leadership as “The ability to establish vision and direction, to influence and align others towards a common purpose, and to empower and inspire people to achieve success”.  There is nothing in that definition about adopting a particular approach and it turns out there are many different styles of leadership: charismatic, democratic, servant, authoritarian, transactional, the list is endless. The most important thing is that the project manager finds a way to establish a clear project vision (the project objectives and the reasons for undertaking the project) and the path to achieving the objectives, to orient stakeholders towards the common goal, and to motivate and inspire people to achieve success.

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