Essential leadership skills for project managers

Abstract

Successful project managers are managers who practice both strong management skills and effective leadership skills. Leadership skills are not the same as management skills. Strong management skills can be gained through experience and practice. Leadership skills can be learned and leadership qualities can be developed. Effective leaders develop new leadership skills to complement those that made them successful as managers.

This presentation focuses on leadership competencies required for project managers to manage their teams effectively and deliver projects successfully. The presentation will cover the differences and the commonalities between project management and leadership. Participants will learn about practicing leadership skills in managing projects, including interpersonal communication skills, negotiation skills, influencing skills, and team building, as well as the most basic leadership competencies in motivating and inspiring teams. The focus will be on building leadership competencies to transform successful project managers into effective leaders.

Introduction

With project management professionals utilizing best practices in project and program management in their organizations, we have seen project success rates improve in the last few years. Project managers have mastered implementing project management methodologies, leveraging advancement in technologies as applied in useful project management and team collaboration tools and techniques.

However, even with improved project success rates and more technologically advanced tools and techniques to help improve team productivity, organizations today still face many complex challenges in setting and achieving their strategic goals. One big challenge is coming from the lack or weakness of “leadership” in the organization.

To be successful in implementing their strategic goals through projects and programs, organizations need effective leaders. Organizations need to have successful project/program managers who are also effective leaders. What leadership skills do project managers need? Are project management skills not sufficient?

Project management is different from leadership. Successful project managers may not be effective leaders. By understanding the difference between project management and leadership and taking the path to become effective leaders, successful project managers can utilize their innovative and creative skills to help them develop leadership skills that will complement their project management abilities.

Although project management is different from leadership, there is some commonality between the two. The performance of a project manager and the effectiveness of a leader are both measured in terms of the performance of the followers—the performance of the team. Hence, focus on team performance is a very important aspect in developing leadership skills for project managers. The most essential leadership skills for the project manager start with motivating and inspiring teams and individuals—negotiating and communicating skills, listening and influencing skills, and team building with emphasis on improving team performance.

Project Management and Leadership

The latest edition of the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008) defined project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements. The PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (2008) defined the standard project management framework and provides guidance to best practices in project management.

Charles M. Cadwell (2004) summarized definitions of leadership as developed by leadership experts John P. Kotter, John W. Gardner, and Peter F. Drucker. John P. Kotter (1988), of the Harvard Business School, defined effective leadership as the process of moving a group of followers in some direction through mostly non-coercive means and producing movement in the long-term best interests of the group. John W. Gardner (1990), a leadership expert who has been an advisor to four U.S. presidents, defined leadership as the process of persuasion or example by which an individual induces a group of followers to pursue common objectives. Peter F. Drucker (1996), an internationally known author on leadership, defined a leader as one who has followers. He says that regardless of a leader's own individual abilities or greatness, there can be no leaders without followers.

Differences between Project Management and Leadership

Although there is an expectation for project managers to be leaders, project management and leadership are two different things. Being a successful project manager, delivering successful projects consistently, does not mean that one is a successful leader. Successful project managers develop project management skills through knowledge of the standard project management framework and through experience in utilizing best practices in implementing project management methodologies. Successful leaders are innovative and creative individuals who continuously develop new skills to integrate with their current capabilities. Effective leaders integrate leadership skills with project management skills, developing new leadership skills to complement their project management skills.

Charles M. Cadwell (2004) summarized the difference between leaders and managers in the following chart. Cadwell says that “management skills provide a foundation for developing leadership skills. Effective leaders have the ability to apply the appropriate skill at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place” (p.).

Leaders Innovate; Managers Administer

Managers usually focus on implementing and following processes, attending to the daily routine of activities, ensuring that the team can be productive with the tools they need to perform their tasks.

Leaders are innovators who are always looking to improve ways of doing things and challenging the processes in order to improve the team's productivity level.

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Differences between leaders and managers

Exhibit 1: Differences between leaders and managers

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Leaders Seek Challenges; Managers Seek to Maintain the Status Quo

Managers are skilled in following processes. Hence, they tend to accept the status quo and continue to do things the way they have been done. They tend to resist deviations from the current process, and therefore, resist new ways of doing things.

Leaders tend to look for challenges. Challenges lead to new ideas and improvements in the current processes.

Leaders Think Long Term; Managers Think Short–to Mid-Term

Leaders create a vision—the future state of the organization when its strategic goals are achieved. Leaders think long term in achieving the vision. Project managers are focused on achieving the short-term and mid-term deliverables to accomplish the project goals, as part of achieving the long-term strategic goals.

This makes both effective leadership and project management essential in achieving short-term and long-term strategic goals for any organization.

Leaders Motivate and Inspire; Managers Control

Leaders motivate and inspire their people simply in the way they work with them: in setting goals, making meaningful contributions, recognizing their efforts, always encouraging the team to deliver the best work that they can. Managers, in their focus on implementing processes, control their people and the working environment, including their work assignments, schedules, deliverables, etc.

Successful project managers continuously develop leadership skills in motivating and inspiring teams. They practice effective human resource management processes for team development.

Leaders Worry about Doing the Right Things; Managers Worry about Doing Things Right

Leaders are focused on accomplishing the vision for the organization. Implementing the organizational strategy through projects and programs depends on the organizational leaders making the right decisions on what things, what initiatives, should be implemented. Once the decisions (on what initiatives to start) have been made, managers take care of project/program delivery, ensuring that things are done right (utilizing project management to implement the project).

Leaders Have a Wide Circle of Influence; Managers Have Limited Influence

Effective leaders impact the entire organization and also people outside the organization. Their influence extends beyond the boundaries of the organization.

Project managers' impact dominates their own projects, but they have little influence outside of their project stakeholders.

The Commonality between Project Management and Leadership

The biggest commonality between project management and leadership is what the followers bring.

Peter F. Drucker (1996) gave his definition of a leader, as one who has followers, i.e., having followers defines a leader. What else do followers bring? The success of a leader is determined by the performance of the followers.

In a project environment, the project manager's followers are the project team. In a project environment, the success of a leader and the success of a project manager depend on the performance of the project team. The performance of a project manager and the effectiveness of a leader are both measured in terms of the performance of the team.

Leadership Skills for Project Managers

Project managers accomplish assigned project work through their project teams. They acquire the necessary technical, business, and leadership skills to help manage their project teams effectively. They apply effective leadership skills in motivating their teams in accomplishing project objectives and completing the project deliverables to achieve the project goals.

Essential leadership skills for project managers start with motivating and inspiring teams. Other leadership skills including negotiating, communicating, listening, influencing skills, and team building are also important, especially to the extent that they contribute towards improving team performance.

  • Motivating and inspiring. Leaders develop a vision and then continually communicate that vision throughout the organization, working with the team to achieve the vision. Leaders keep their people enthusiastic in doing their work and focused on the project vision. They encourage the team members to do their best and accomplish the work with full self-satisfaction for the making their contribution towards the project vision.
  • Team building. Leaders help the team members help each other, as they make their individual and group contributions toward achieving the project goals.
  • Negotiating and communicating. Leaders get the team members and project stakeholders to work effectively with one another, considering all parties with shared or opposed interests, with intent to compromise before reaching a team decision. Leaders create a project environment where team members can be honest and open in communicating with each other, understanding each team member's communication style, and able to communicate effectively with project stakeholders.
  • Listening and influencing. Leaders are active listeners, understanding and considering the team members' perspective before making team decisions that will affect the team. Leaders get project team members and other stakeholders to collaborate and cooperate with each other, working towards a common goal.

A number of authors have written about leadership skills for project managers, including Steven Flannes and Ginger Levin (2005) and Vijay Verma (1995), providing great sources for exploring ways to develop project managers into effective leaders. There is not sufficient room in this paper to even summarize their work.

Another great work on team building is Patrick Lencioni's (2002) work on overcoming team dysfunction which is briefly discussed in the next section.

Improving Team Performance by Overcoming Team Dysfunctions

Effective leaders are those who apply the appropriate skills at the appropriate time for the appropriate situation. With the leader's and project manager's performance measured in terms of the project team's performance, effective leaders always focus on applying appropriate leadership and project management skills to improve team performance.

However, improving team productivity is a very difficult task to achieve. Project teams are made up of human beings—people often with diverse personal culture, different skills, strengths, weaknesses, and different personalities.

The five dysfunctions of a team

Exhibit 2: The five dysfunctions of a team

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni (2002) explained that majority of project teams in organizations today are dysfunctional. He described five team dynamics issues, which he called team dysfunctions, and how to overcome these five team dysfunctions to improve teamwork, and ultimately improve team performance.

Exhibit 2 shows the five dysfunctions of a team, starting with the first dysfunction at the bottom of the pyramid. According to Lencioni (2002), the five dysfunctions of a team are:

  1. Absence of trust. The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. When team members who are not honest or genuinely open with one another about making mistakes or about their weaknesses. This is often due the team's unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group.
  2. Fear of conflict. Absence of trust sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict, when the team members are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate, and constructive debate of ideas.
  3. Lack of commitment. Fear of conflict ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment, when team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to team decisions.
  4. Avoidance of accountability. With lack of commitment and buy-in on team decisions, team members develop an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction.
  5. Inattention to results. Lack of accountability leads to an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive: inattention to results, when team members put their individual objectives above the collective project team objectives.

The five team dysfunctions are interlinked like a chain, so that when one link is broken, teamwork deteriorates even if only a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish.

To understand the five dysfunctions, Patrick Lencioni (2002) described an opposite approach—a positive one—that shows how members of truly cohesive teams behave. He also covered a number of suggestions on ways to overcome the dysfunctions.

The five dysfunctions of a team and the positive approach

Exhibit 3: The five dysfunctions of a team and the positive approach

According to Lencion (2002), the five dysfunctions with the positive approach are depicted in Exhibit 3 and are as follows:

  1. Opposite of the first dysfunction: Team members trust one another.
  2. Opposite of the second dysfunction: Team members engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. Opposite of the third dysfunction: Team members commit to team decisions and plans of action.
  4. Opposite of the fourth dysfunction: Team members hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. Opposite of the fifth dysfunction: Team members focus on the achievement of project team goals.

Understanding each of the team dysfunctions and exploring ways to overcome them (i.e., focusing on achieving the opposite of each dysfunction) is a great test to one's leadership skills. An effective leader assesses the team's weaknesses, what team dysfunctions exist within the team, the causes of the dysfunctions, and apply ways to overcome the dysfunctions to improve team performance.

Conclusion

Project management is different from leadership. Successful project managers may not be effective leaders. But project managers can develop leadership skills to become effective leaders. And organizations today need successful project managers to be effective leaders, as well. By understanding the difference between project management and leadership, and taking the path to become effective leaders, successful project managers can utilize their innovative and creative skills to help them develop leadership skills that will complement their project management abilities.

The common aspect of project management and leadership is the yardstick by which the performance of both the project manager and the leader is measured. The performance of a project manager and the effectiveness of a leader are both measured in terms of the performance of the followers—the performance of the team. Hence, developing leadership skills for project managers with focus on skills to improve team performance should be an important consideration in leadership skills development for project managers. Essential leadership skills for project managers start with motivating and inspiring teams and individuals, and include negotiating and communicating skills, listening and influencing skills, and team building with emphasis on utilizing these skills to improve team performance.

References

Cadwell, Charles M. (2004). Leadership skills for managers (4th ed). Retrieved July 18, 2009, from http://common.books24x7.com/book/id_11513/book.asp

Drucker, P. F. (1996). The Executive in action: Managing for results, innovation and entrepreneurship, the effective executive. New York: HarperCollins.

Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York: The Free Press.

Kotter, J. P. (1988). The leadership factor. New York: The Free Press.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team—a leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Flannes, S. W., & Levin, G. (2005). Essential people skills for project managers. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, Inc.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Verma, V. K. (1995). Human resource skills for project managers. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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 or any listed author.

© 2009, Victoria S. Kumar, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA

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