Project Management Institute

Attributes of the successful project manager

Neal Whitten

Why are some project leaders are more successful than others? Are there common traits that characterize successful project leaders? Traits that set them apart from less successful, less effective leaders?

Like many, I have long had an interest in understanding why some leaders are more successful than others. Over the years, I have observed that the most successful leaders seem to do things, and work with people, in certain ways. I have converged on a set of common philosophies or tenets (hereafter called attributes) that the most successful leaders seem to possess. These leadership attributes have worked for me and I have seen them work for others. Being a leader carries a lot of responsibility, and it also can be a lonely, stressful job if you allow the role to control you, rather than you taking charge of your own emotions. These attributes serve to help you stay in control. But before discussing these attributes, let's consider some definitions of a leader. A leader:

  • Is the principal player on a team, the human “glue” that holds the team together
  • Inspires and guides a team toward a common goal
  • Exhibits integrity
  • Is a continual source of energy
  • Encourages desired behavior from others
  • Sets an example for others
  • Is accountable
  • Achieves results.

While not an exhaustive list of what being a leader is all about, this definition is sufficiently complete to point out the importance of a leader in creating and nurturing a successful organization. In fact, regardless of the skills and talents of the people that make up an organization, if the organization lacks an effective project leader, its potential greatness is considerably reduced.

One last point before launching into the attributes: Drawing from your own experiences, identify, from leaders you personally know, those you believe are the most successful. Then decide whether the attributes shared by these leaders are included in the list presented here. You might even ask yourself how your project leader, manager, or your manager's manager stacks up against these attributes. More importantly, however, how do you stack up against these attributes?

The Ability to Create and Nurture a Vision. As a leader, it is important to create and nurture a vision—a far-reaching purpose—that you can share with your entire team and that the team can think about all day long, all week long, all project long. This vision will translate into the team purpose. Having a purpose has a powerful effect on the positive outcome of the team's mission. Not only does a purpose channel the energies of the team into a single focus, it helps to ensure that the tradeoffs and compromises made along the way fully support the vision.

Note, however, that creating a vision requires you to know where you want to go. This is essential if you plan to lead others to that destination. Only then can you be sure that the journey followed will result in victory. Great accomplishments are made possible by great visions.

The Ability Not to Fear Failure. We all fail at things—all the time. It's natural and expected; It is the way we learn. You couldn't walk the first time you tried. Or talk. Or type. Or ride a bike. Or play that video game. And so on. When we were very young, we simply got up, dusted ourselves off, and tried again and again until we mastered our goal. But something happened to some of us as we “matured.” We began to fear failing and therefore shunned opportunities that we believed increased our chances for failing.

Portions of this article are excerpted from Managing Software Development Projects, Second Edition by Neal Whitten. Copyright 1995, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true.

John Keats, English poet

What a shame. You see, life is full of paradoxes. The person who is no stranger to failure is often the person who is most likely to succeed. Every failure offers a lesson and from every lesson comes strength. If you learn from each failure, you get a little stronger. And after a while, you can even amaze yourself at the progress you have made.

Of course all this is made more possible if you don't fear failure. Fear perpetuates failure and encourages you to “quit.” Think of those around you who fear failure. Most likely they are not leaders, are content with complacency, and seek so-called “safety” by maintaining the status quo wherever they may be. They literally withdraw from many of life's opportunities.

Now look at those whose failures seem to be visible, yet from each fall they rise to prepare for the next challenge. If failure means growth and opportunity, then it should never be feared. The only real failures are the experiences we don't learn from. The most successful leaders have learned to view failures as the positive force they are—necessary steps that enable us to grow and to achieve those things that are important to us.

The Ability to Expect and Accept Criticism. If you expect criticism, you will seldom be disappointed. However, note that there are two types of criticism: constructive and destructive. Of course, you should welcome constructive criticism, which is well-meaning and useful feedback. Constructive criticism should leave you feeling that you have been helped. This type of feedback can help you to learn about yourself and the impact you are having as a result of your actions. It is information you can use to make choices for yourself and to grow in the direction of your personal goals.

Destructive criticism might be maliciously rooted. It offers little, if any, real value for your learning and growth. However, often what appears to be destructive criticism is, in fact, just an unfortunate and ineffective attempt to offer some useful information by a person who doesn't know how best to communicate the information. Be aware that some well-intended criticism might come your way awkwardly masked in destructive garb.

Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.

Aristotle, Greek philosopher and scientist

You will always find those who disapprove of your behavior or your decisions. Even the people you love, and who love you, will, at times, disapprove of your actions. When people criticize you, remember it is only their opinion. If you allow the absence of their approval to immobilize you, then you are allowing others to control you. You are, in effect, saying that what other people think about you is more important than what you think about yourself. Instead, you should ask yourself if there is something to be learned from the criticism. If there is, then, by all means, learn! If there is nothing to be learned, then forget the experience and go about fulfilling your dreams.

The Ability to Take Risks. Risk—that simple yet mighty four-letter word. The willingness to take risks is what changed the perception of a flat world to round and gave humans wings to fly. It gives people the ability to understand their own capabilities. If you want to achieve the extraordinary, you must take risks. Risk-taking can occur on a small scale, such as driving a new route home from work, speaking out when you disagree with an issue, or volunteering to take on an additional assignment. If you practice becoming comfortable with smaller risks, you will find yourself much more prepared to recognize a larger risk and much more willing to take it on.

Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks.

Herodotus, Greek historian

If you increasingly take on more risk, you will find an unexpected benefit—the recognition that your level of energy and enthusiasm grow in proportion to the risk that you pursue. Often, assignments that are the riskiest are later viewed as the assignments that were the most enjoyable, memorable, and career-building. There is nothing wrong with gradually expanding your risk-taking abilities. Only you can decide what your limitations are and what level of risk is suitable for you. The leaders of tomorrow are taking risks today.

The Ability to Empower Others. New leaders commonly resist giving up some of their “power” by empowering others—giving them full responsibility and accountability for key tasks. Their reasons include the belief that they can do the job better or faster themselves or the fear of giving others too much work. Another reason: They allow society's work ethic—being independent and self-reliant—to interfere with their duties as a leader of others. Resist these attitudes and transfer some of your tasks, your key tasks.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.

Andrew Carnegie, American industrialist and philanthropist

A successful leader knows that he or she achieves goals through the dedication, skill and efforts of others. You must learn to trust and work with others in ways that allow them to grow and achieve their dreams. After all, you appreciated the opportunities that others gave you to learn. Give others their chance as well. It is good for you and good for your team members. It frees you to lead and frees them to learn. Everybody will win.

The Ability to be Decisive. Your organization reacts to your actions. When you delay making crucial decisions, you also delay the time that will be needed to implement those decisions. Many organizations have the capacity to increase their productivity and effectiveness. By putting off decision-making, you are not driving your organization efficiently. If you delay your own decision making, you are also preventing the next tier of decisions from being made. This decision queue can build to a point where progress within the organization is seriously impacted. The result is an uncontrollable sluggishness that spreads throughout the organization and that only the project leader can correct.

Once the WHAT is decided, the HOW always follows. W e must not make the HOW an excuse for not facing and accepting the WHAT.

Pearl S. Buck, American novelist

It's better to make decisions early—when their pain and cost to the organization are relatively minor, yet when their long-term impact can have a major positive effect. Some decisions will, in hindsight, prove to be less than the best. However, if you wait until absolutely no risk remains before taking a position on a problem, then you will lose all competitiveness.

The Ability to be Persistent. Perseverance is a universal characteristic of successful leaders. This attribute can propel a so-called “common” person to achieve uncommon feats. Perseverance pushes a chemist to try that 10,000th mixture that finally succeeds, an athlete to achieve an Olympic-class victory, an artist to create a masterpiece, and the medical biologist to locate a disease-causing gene. Perhaps, however, the most inspiring effect of perseverance can be seen in a person who overcomes a major physical handicap and goes on to accomplish a feat that would be difficult for even a fully functioning person to achieve.

Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, English poet, critic, essayist, and lexicographer

Intellectual and physical capabilities vary widely among people. However, it is encouraging to know that we all have the innate ability to exercise perseverance and determination in achieving those goals that are important to us. Being persistent can make all the difference between dreaming and seeing the dream blossom into reality. Act like it is impossible for you to fail. You can achieve nearly anything you set out to make happen if you are persistent in following your dreams.

The Ability to be Happy. Be happy. Feel good about yourself. Being happy is the cornerstone of your continued effectiveness. Don't strive to be happy. Don't set goals and then tell yourself that once those goals are reached you will be happy. Putting off happiness until some external event occurs will guarantee that your happiness will continue to be elusive.

Everything you need to be totally fulfilled you already have

Dr. Wayne Dyer, American psychologist and author

You have everything you need today to be happy. You don't need a promotion, award, new car, vacation, retirement, or whatever, to be happy. Happiness is an attitude, an acceptance of what is. It comes from within—not from external events or things, and therefore, no one can take away it from you. You can lose all your material possessions and still be happy.

This doesn't mean you should stop working for self-improvement or improvement to your family, job, company, world, or whatever is important to you. It means that you must not allow external forces to control you to the point at which your actual happiness is no longer within your own control. However you define success for yourself, you will improve your likelihood of attaining your goals significantly if you recognize and exercise your ability to be and remain happy.

The Ability to Laugh. A meeting has just been called to settle a dispute between two parties. As people assemble in the meeting room, an uncomfortable silence is felt. Everyone has arrived and the meeting is about to start. There's instability in the air, a feeling of tension that one wrong word or action could ignite into an emotional explosion. The first words are spoken and strike everyone in the meeting with the same response—a round of uncontrollable laughter fills the room.

It is my belief, you cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the most amusing.

Sir Winston Churchill, British statesman

Can you relate to this scenario? Most of us can. That well-timed bit of humor was sorely needed. All too often we take the moment much too seriously. We fail to loosen up and find the humor in ourselves and our situation. How terribly depressing for an organization to resist expressing the lighter side of the daily problems we face. As a leader, support a healthy dose of humor in the organization. Displaying a sense of humor also helps you to remain cool under pressure and to keep problems in perspective.

Caution: Don't use sarcasm in your humor. While many people may view your comment to be amusing, it may leave others feeling uncomfortable and unsettled. Sarcasm also can hurt the trust you have developed with others. People appreciate benevolent humor better than sarcastic humor. If you have a hard time initiating this welcomed variety of humor, then at least show appreciation when others are amusing. While humor has been shown to preserve the health of people, it also adds value to the health of the total organization.

The Ability to Leave Your Ego Behind. We all have an ego. For some, the ego can cause a paralysis, inhibiting their quest for growth and opportunity. Here is another paradox: Often the person who insists on attention is the one least likely to receive the type or amount of attention desired. An overactive ego does not help win the recognition, admiration, and approval that the egotist seeks. Instead, it has a repelling effect that encourages others to want to limit their association with the egotist. Furthermore, it leads others to question the real value and substance that exist behind all the verbal arm-waving.

An oversized ego can also interfere with recognizing others for their contributions. And it can bias decisions being made, favoring who is right rather than what is right. You have probably seen leaders with large egos. Having an exaggerated ego doesn't mean you will never get to be a leader. It means that fewer people will trust you or want to work for and with you. It means that you will make your job harder and less effective than it needs to be. An unbridled ego is a haunting liability. The less approval you demand from others, the more you are likely to receive.

The Ability to Think Before Acting. Resist the temptation to criticize hastily. When you suspect poor work, ask questions and carefully listen to the answers. Once a wrong or regrettable word is spoken, it cannot be taken back. After you understand the reason behind a problem, attack the problem, not the person.

Give others the same courtesy that you would like for yourself. Take this opportunity to not only help someone resolve a problem, but to help him or her benefit from the experience. Also, work at increasing the bond and trust between you and the project member. If you demonstrate constructive behavior and resist attacking the person, you may find yourself with a more loyal and dedicated project member.

The Ability to Meet Commitments. When you make a commitment, it is a personal statement about yourself. It says that you can be depended on, that you will do everything within your abilities to honor the pledge that you have given.

The success of any organization depends on its ability to meet its commitments. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The project structure, represented as a chain, can break quickly when one or more commitments are broken.

Make no commitments lightly. Commit only to that which you believe you can achieve. To commit unconditionally to more is to be distrustful, for if your commitment is weak, so too are those commitments that depend on you. Pull your own weight and do as you say you will.

When you meet your commitments, you will be recognized as a greater value to the organization. You also may find that you will be given the option to assume greater responsibilities as well as to be exposed to increased opportunities. People will prefer to have you on their team or will want to be on your team. You will also find that you will be given greater freedom to manage your activities as you choose.

The Ability to Coach Your Team—Be a Role Model. We all learn the easiest and fastest by observing others—by having an example to mimic. As a leader, others look to you—and rightly so—for that example. They look to you for strength, for wisdom, for caring, for attention. They also look to you for honesty about your human frailties. For example, the integrity that you demonstrate when you make a mistake, admit it, recover and continue on can have a profound positive impact on those around you.

Teach what you have learned. Impart your knowledge and experience. Prepare others to take on more responsibility. You know what you want from your leaders, work to provide the same to your subordinates and peers, and even back up to your leaders. Work continuously to build a stronger organization this month than the one that existed last month. When you come across a problem, fix the problem—then fix the process that caused the problem. The greatest leader leads by example. Practice what you expect from others. Show you care, offer your support, be there to make it happen.

The Ability to Maintain a Winning Attitude. Attitude is the disposition, manner, or approach that you bring to everything you do. One of the most admired traits you can have is a good, or positive, attitude. A positive attitude can actually bring pleasure to performance of a tedious or difficult task. A positive attitude can make a long day seem short and even can improve the productivity and quality of the work being performed. People who consistently maintain positive attitudes tend to have higher energy levels than those who are less positive. These people look for something positive—and they find it—in every chore they tackle. You have probably observed situations in which two people were being considered for the same assignment and the person chosen appears to have somewhat less experience or knowledge. Usually, this person was chosen because of his or her positive attitude.

The quality of work is affected as much by ones attitude as by ones skill.


As a revealing anonymous quote states: “A pessimist finds difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist finds opportunity in every difficulty.” People can take great liberties in choosing how to think. A glass of water can be half filled or half empty. How a person thinks does not change the fact that the glass has 50 percent of its capacity used up by water. But how a person chooses to think does have an affect on the efficiency with which a task is completed and on the enjoyment the person derives from accomplishing that task.

As a leader, you want the people whom you are leading to demonstrate good attitudes in every endeavor that you assign them. People who exhibit these up-beat attitudes are considerably easier to manage and more enjoyable to be around than less positive people. In order for a winning attitude to permeate your team, you must demonstrate and encourage that characteristic. As a leader, the manner in which you approach your work is also the manner most likely to be adopted by those who work under, alongside, and above you. Adopt a winning attitude in the tasks that you undertake, and you also create winning people and winning products in the process.

The Ability to Believe in Yourself. The most successful leaders have learned to believe in their ability to make something happen—to follow their dreams and transform those dreams into reality. They draw from an inner strength that they have chosen to acknowledge is there to work for them. An inner strength that no one can take away—unless they allow it. You must believe in yourself if you expect to become and remain a successful leader, and if you expect others to believe in you. In fact, the belief in one's own capabilities magnifies the contribution from all the other attributes that we have discussed.

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.

Abraham Lincoln

If you believe you can—you will. If you believe you can't—you won't. These pearls of wisdom have been around at least as long as recorded history. And the great news is that no one has a monopoly on these words. They apply to you as much as they do anyone.

You deserve to be what you choose to be and work at becoming—regardless of your age, race, sex, religion, current wealth, whatever. You are what you perceive yourself to be. Your vision of yourself becomes your reality. As a leader, you must believe in your ability to get the job done, to achieve the desired results. If people took on only those jobs where they knew all the answers and had no chance for conflict or failure, there would be no leaders. A successful leader knows that no one person holds the answer to every problem, but with the proper balance of time, energy and talent, no problem escapes unsolved.

It's almost always true that our greatest obstacle to becoming what we truly want is ourselves. If it is truly important to you, then never, never, never give up. As Henry David Thoreau, American writer, philosopher, and naturalist, said: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I believe that everyone has the capability to be a successful project leader. Everyone! There is room for many more leaders, millions more. Although some are more effective than others, or rise to greater heights, this does not diminish the great opportunities of turning your visions into realities. All the attributes can be learned if you choose to learn them. ■

Neal Whitten, PMP, president of the Neal Whitten Group, is a speaker, trainer, consultant and author in project management and employee development. His books include Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World (Wiley and Sons, 1991).

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • June 1996



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