Project Management Institute

How to identify leaders

look for three traits to determine who has the potential to take charge

Look for three traits to determine who has the potential to take charge.


There is no science in the world that will identify leaders in your team. There is, however, a pattern of behavior you can recognize that will increase your chances of finding a person who can motivate, inspire and lead.

I do not believe one size fits all, but the following three general pillars help me identify leadership:


People with exceptional levels of commitment strive to push the envelope, surpass their own boundaries and motivate others. I believe it's impossible to be a true leader by working 9 to 5. Think about the people you admire the most and why. Be it a project manager, an actor, a musician or an athlete, they are all committed to what they do and all go the extra mile.


People with a clear professional objective not only get the job done, they also inspire and lead the group to follow suit. Their drive is not limited: They have personal and professional goals that move them forward, and they bring the team with them. How did Usain Bolt beat the 100-meter Olympic record in 2012? It was his drive.


If people see you as honest, reliable and trustworthy, you will motivate them to follow. If what you are saying and doing does not come from an honest place, it will be hard to inspire others and have them recognize your leadership.

I have been able to trust these pillars to help identify key players in my team. For example, when I first met one of the managers currently on my team, she was working for an office that had rejected a technical component of one of my proposed projects. She was assigned to discuss the case with me. I did not agree with the reasons behind the rejection, but she was so assertive and committed to her decision that I understood I was dealing with someone with strong leadership skills. She had a sense of purpose and drive, and I trusted her judgment.

Of course, sometimes your instincts might be wrong. A trait that has tricked me in the past is charisma. Being nice, popular or likable does not make you a leader. If you are charismatic but fail to set direction, the team will not be inspired. Confusing charisma with leadership is especially tricky in the interview process. I was recently looking for a manager to lead a work stream. One candidate seemed a perfect match, but as soon as he joined the team and I saw him in action, I realized we had made a mistake. His charisma did not translate to commitment, drive and trust.

Leaders inspire people to follow in their footsteps. Project managers need to understand the type of team they are managing and look for the proper leadership to inspire them. PM

img Ricardo Viana Vargas, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP, a past PMI chair, is the director of the Infrastructure and Project Management Group at the United Nations Office for Project Services in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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