Five competencies to successfully drive strategic initiatives




Project leaders are needed to lead and sustain strategic efforts by creating experiences that initiate the transformation of people—starting with themselves—then systems and, ultimately, the organization. The qualities that make the strategic project leader unique are efficiency, customization, foresight, and connectedness. This paper explains the five competencies that a project leader requires to lead strategic initiatives. These competencies enable building and managing relationships in the organization; using techniques to properly advise executives, sponsors, and stakeholders to increase to executive work efficiency; and driving good decision-making that achieves goals that enable organizational strategy. The strategic project leader requires courage, commitment, and alignment of convictions and purpose to succeed and to fill the talent gap. The presentation takes participants through the self-directed leadership steps to achieve this alignment and begin transforming themselves into strategic project leaders.

Who is the Service-Based Project Leader?

The new value proposition of the project manager is to serve the project organization, creating a meaningful experience for team members, customers, and critical stakeholders. This experience is the fuel that ignites the transformation of people, systems, and organizations. Such service not only achieves successful projects on time and within budget, while meeting the needs of stakeholders, but also places the project manager in a unique position as a spearhead of transformative change.

However, project leaders cannot bring about transformation on their own. Transformation requires willing participation and it begins with the human and social needs of the project organization, the community of stakeholders, and their relationship to customers’ business needs. The project leader aligns personal aspirations and needs, transformative insight, and leadership to not only satisfy the overall objectives of the project, but also leave behind permanent benefits.

The new name for those who initiate and sustain transformation through the alignment of the human and social needs of stakeholders is the service-based project leader. These individuals’ burning spirit to change themselves and the world communicates itself through human relationships characterized by mutual respect, honesty, and trust. Service-based project leaders consider the purpose of project work and the value being created. They define their success not just by traditional project metrics and rewards, but by the net social outcomes and the intrinsic value of the work itself. Service-based project leaders create work that is transformative for the individual and the project organization; they lead work that illuminates individual identities and discovery of purpose. Their service unites stakeholders, enabling their rapid self-organization in pursuit of a common goal because their mission is common good for all.

Importance of Transformation

Transformation is a popular word in leadership today, perhaps because modern life too often leaves us without the quiet internal experiences we need to reach our full potential. Although projects are temporary and unique, the results are meant to be meaningful; this is especially true of larger, strategic projects. Projects also require progressive elaboration, implying incremental change through planned, persistent, and coordinated steps. This progressive work is essentially transformational work: projects instigate and drive change, creating results that alter appearance or form.

But not only is the project positively changing the organization, the project is positively changing the people closest to it. Therefore, organizational change is more likely to succeed, take root, and be meaningful when the key stakeholders actively participate in their own transformational process. This transformation must be initiated by someone, and the position aligned with creating and sustaining transformation is the project leader. Stakeholders must be willing to participate, and conditions must be conducive to participation. These conditions are influenced by the leadership competencies of the project leader.

Service-based project leaders consciously initiate and sustain transformation first through people, beginning with themselves, then through systems, processes, and finally through the organization. Only when approached in that order, does transformational project work take root and grow. A service-based project leader lives in a continuous state of transformation.

Mission of the Service-Based Project Leader

Service-based project leaders align personal aspirations and needs, transformative insight, and leadership to satisfy the overall objectives of the project, and leave behind permanent benefits. Their mission is to create work that illuminates individual identities and discovery of purpose while using their leadership to unite stakeholders, enabling their rapid self-organization in pursuit of a common goal.

Why We Need Transforming Work

As organizations try to be more adaptive to change through strategic agility, workers have been burdened with chaotic schedules and overwhelmed by information and multi-tasking across multiple projects. The lack of leadership around projects compounds the workers’ negative attitudes toward their organization, co-workers, and customers.

The sad truth about the American workplace is that 30% of employees are actively committed to doing a good job, 50% merely put their time in, and 20% act out of discontent in counterproductive ways, negatively influencing co-workers, missing work, and sending negative messages to customers. Such actions cost the U.S. a half trillion dollars each year (Kim & Mauborgne, 2014).

People need a purpose. Doctors have found that people with purpose in their lives are less prone to disease; and purpose helps workers navigate a complex, volatile, ambiguous world. Fewer than 20% of leaders, from organizations such as the Girl Scouts to GE, have a strong sense of purpose (Craig & Snook, 2014).

The transformative work of strategic projects provides individuals with the ability to align their convictions with their work, participate in the transformational process, and experience internal and external changes and experiential learning. This type of work initiates personal growth and a renewed spirit.

Four Qualities that Differentiate the Service-Based Project Leader

To step out of the role of project manager into that of a service-based project leader, a project manager must see herself as a professional whose primary purpose is to generate value through personal performance and services provided to customers. The key to value in services is creating a recognizable value proposition through performance, finding new creative services to satisfy that proposition, and emphasizing quality and the experience of the service (Berry, 1999). These services fill the organization's talent gap for executives and overcome the forces of commoditization. These new project leaders do not compete on price, but on quality, created through unique, customized services that provide meaningful experiences and initiate transformation. These qualities differentiate project leaders from project managers.


Service-based project leaders create efficiency by focusing on high-value work rather than becoming bogged down in repetitive tasks with low value or minimal impact on project goals. Instead, they quickly master those procedural, repetitive tasks and then coach, train, and promote other resources to do them, thereby elevating both themselves and others to higher levels of performance. This efficiency creates a superior value proposition for stakeholders, without the need to work ridiculous hours. A sense of moral and ethical purpose, their primary motivation, differentiates these leaders and is at the heart of their efficiency. Service-based project leaders maximize work days by keeping team members productive, aligned, and in sync with each other, and by removing unseen barriers that impede progress.


A service-based project leader doesn't throw out the proven processes, tools, and techniques he used as a project manager, but rather finds creative ways to adapt these tools and discover new services. He customizes templates and tools to meet the needs of customers, and continually seeks to discover what is unique about his current engagement and the needs of his constituents. Because of his deep understanding and intense focus on customers’ needs, he continually adapts deliverables to meet those needs and create a better experience for stakeholders.

Deep within each stakeholder, service-based project leader, customer, and team is the aspiration to grow and change. Service-based project leaders seek to understand these aspirations and customize experiences to initiate and guide change in themselves and their respective organizations. Service value is increased when experiences meet or exceed customer expectations, allowing change to become possible.

Customized services are most recognized by stakeholders when the leader takes on projects that have a high value proposition to stakeholders, but simultaneously carry uncomfortable levels of risk and uncertainty. High-value-proposition projects and programs make stakeholders uncomfortable because they are characterized by a history of failure, rely on cutting-edge technology, or require traditional organizational silos to collaborate. These projects gravitate toward performers who have this differentiating skill of customization.


Foresight is the head start the project leader has over her peers; once she relinquishes this advantage she is no longer leading, but reacting to events. She is a leader in name only, not through action. Events force her hand before she can muster the cognitive instincts to lead (Greenleaf, 1991). Foresight doesn't mean predicting the future, but becoming skilled at seeing trends in how people work individually and collectively, listening to the mood and attitude of stakeholders, and recognizing the ebb and flow of events. This is not accomplished by sitting behind a desk or in meetings. Foresight is accomplished by being close to the project's work, its outputs, and their consumption, without disrupting it.

A project manager works in the present with a plan for the future; a service-based project leader works in the present to bring about the future. Foresight is necessary to move project teams from reaction to proactive anticipation. When a project is in trouble, teams find themselves continually reacting to the latest crisis. The project plan becomes outdated as activities and tasks become disconnected from the plan. The crisis comes and goes, thanks to heroic efforts of team members, but soon a new crisis erupts because monies were spent outside of the plan, and schedules and resources are out of sync, causing an array of potential new crises.

A service-based project leader's foresight moves the team from surviving crisis after crisis, which erodes trust and ignites fear, to executing with creativity and confidence. Although they cannot see these evolving conditions with 100 percent certainty, they have better-than-average odds of being in the right place at the right time to add maximum value.

The motivation to act in decisive ways with this foresight becomes a matter of ethics for the service-based project leader, because her conscience does not let opportunities for action slip away, only to watch stakeholders pay the price for her inaction.


Work, particularly the temporary nature of project work, can quench one's deep internal needs for connectedness with self and others. This internal yearning is rooted in the potential for new self-discovery. When one begins to feel the satisfaction brought on by new self-discovery, the constraints of reality seem to be lifted, even if only slightly, giving rise to life-giving energy.

When project organizations are seamlessly connected, leadership is shared and distributed through the project organization, not based on experience, tenure, or status, but rather based on evolving conditions and needs. With connectedness, team members feel free to push beyond their comfort zones, because failure is not feared. With connectedness, comes the imaginary yoke of interwoven arms forming to catch those who courageously reach beyond themselves and momentarily fall. This yoke, symbolic of human resolve and purpose, strengthens with each stumble and subsequent recovery.

Connected teams create results that are significantly greater than the sum of results achieved independently. That is why these service-based leaders work tirelessly to create connectedness among participants. There is no formula for this natural phenomenon, the essence of system dynamics. Instead, it is allowed to occur naturally.

Excuses for Not Becoming a Service-Based Project Leader

Practitioners must overcome the reasons not to act as a project leader. There are real challenges, but there are also excuses. These excuses are usually rooted in fear.

I don't have the authority.

Successful leaders do not attain their leadership positions by waiting for superiors to appoint them. Leaders don't wait for someone to tell them to lead. They start the process; they reach for more responsibility and create opportunities for themselves by serving the interests of others.

Opportunities to create a better experience for customers and team members appear every day. With openness to selfless service to others, opportunities for subtle positive changes in people, systems, and the organization will begin to appear.

I don't have the ability.

Another common excuse is lack of leadership competencies. Some convince themselves their brain is not wired for leadership work. Fear is often at the heart of this excuse, unless one truly believes leaders are only born.

Because leadership opportunities are abundant and come in all shapes and sizes, developing leadership competencies should be a life-long goal for any professional. Leadership competencies can be improved through the proper feedback mechanisms and use of emotional intelligence skills.

Learning new ways of thinking is possible. Project managers, as individuals, have different learning styles, but can learn to use their brains differently through practice and repetition.

The fear of leadership can create a mental block. Too often, project managers consciously choose to look away and not lead because it feels like the safe thing to do, rather than be limited by their lack of ability.

The organizational culture must change first.

Some convince themselves the organizational culture will not allow them to be a successful leader even if they had the authority. Waiting for the organizational culture to change is too risky. Opportunities float past project managers everyday, and they must act upon them. Organizational cultures are changed by change agents, who first transform themselves. People transform organizations; organizations shouldn't transform people.

Project managers often complain that their organizational culture will not accept project managers as leaders. They recite, “Project managers in our company only perform certain types of activities, take notes in meetings, write a charter, develop a project plan, and schedule meetings.” If you can't change what a project manager does, then you can change your title, take your project skills, and start the journey as a project leader in the role of a functional manager or whatever title is needed to make it happen.

The reality remains that change is difficult. Personal change includes challenging existing thought processes that have been ingrained from early on in life. We must confront our own fears.

Becoming a Service-Based Project Leader


The process of becoming a service-based project leader involves five component steps. First, discovery of the self and one's higher needs, with exploration of life choices and the resulting decisions. The second step is creating, which requires understanding both the personal vision and the group vision that generate creative energy. Next is the commitment to transformation. The project leader then must engage in self-directed leadership development, and finally, create active leadership experiences to support his or her own growth.


In preparing to become a strategic project leader, two important concepts are self-actualization and self-transcendence. Self-actualization involves striving to be the best that one can by using one's own unique abilities. Transcending the self allows one to see the world differently and involves a level of integration of body, mind, and soul. It is characterized by peak performance, and removes limitations associated with people and environment, resulting in serenity and inner peace. But the hectic pace of project life makes it difficult to focus on personal change and higher-level needs.

A practitioner who seeks to satisfy unmet, higher-level needs must first make a conscious decision to take ownership of his career. This ownership rests in a combination of choices and decisions concerning what he desires in a career. Life choices about who he desires to be lead to continual decisions and subsequent actions to reach his ideal state of being. These decisions result in an alteration of his reality, which in turn impacts his future choices.

A service-based project leader must first instill inner confidence in himself before building a bridge of confidence for others. With confidence, a project manager is more likely to transition into the behaviors of a leader. These behaviors may range from confidently strolling through the office to fostering open communication, to knowing project team members as people, not just as workers, and treating them with respect. The service-based project leader's self-confidence leads to personal transformational experiences. By instilling confidence in the team and customer, the initiation of transformation begins. The first step is to build the bridge of confidence.


Creating involves changing the underlying structure or root cause of a problem, while at the same time bringing new realities into existence. A project leader's problem-solving focus is on the removal of barriers to allow the creative process to flourish.

When vision and creativity are lacking in projects, project teams tend to recycle previous problems or move from one version of a problem to another. Because there is no vision, they focus on solving the current problem. A strong vision is necessary to change the attitudes, behaviors, and processes associated with today's projects, particularly information technology projects. Technology can enable these changes, but too often, a project team's focus on technology obscures the achievement of the vision.

Personal Visioning

A leader's purpose and vision — what she stands for and who she is, precedes the team purpose and vision. A service-based project leader must create a personal purpose and vision and be en route to achieving results prior to leading others. Her purpose is a statement regarding her life meaning; “Why do I exist?” The vision embodies how she is to live out this purpose.

A personal vision is created by two components: one's current reality (where you are) and one's personal vision (who you want to be). The discrepancy creates tension that must be resolved at a personal level (Fritz, 1999). Only then can one's personal vision be aligned with the larger, more inclusive group vision, which is critical for creating the energy to achieve this vision.

Group Visioning

Similar to a personal vision, a group vision should conjure up mental images of the team's ideal self-image and purpose. This image should be appealing to all individuals and interested stakeholders. Project leaders must be able to articulate, in a concise manner, the essence of what a team is trying to create. This tactical visioning is a collaborative process and yields a shared vision with linkages to personal visions. This is how service-based project leaders not only transform processes and systems, but also initiate the personal transformation of themselves and others.

The shared vision enables a team to generate positive energy. A project leader must define this vision and the current reality and allow the tension between the two to resolve itself. If the underlying structure is built on mutual trust, respect, and open dialogue, energy will naturally be generated toward that vision, and a high-performing team will emerge.


Service-based project leadership requires serious, conscious commitment on the part of the project manager. Barriers to this commitment include fear of change and stress that impacts the heart and mind. Recharging one's energy is crucial—especially durable energy, which builds a connection between the mind and heart. The ability to connect to work emotionally and find a driving purpose for that work can reduce both environmental and task stress and become a force for change. To allow the heart and mind to remain disconnected and to continue working without growth and inspiration, is to do a disservice to oneself and one's profession.

To begin the commitment process, the project leader should align core values and convictions with her purpose, which supplies energy to drive behavioral changes. She must then decide the direction of her leadership journey and what types of projects and people she desires to devote herself to. Our nature is to transcend the past, understand the present, and adapt to the future. A hopeful attitude in approaching life is needed to reach beyond oneself, one's identity, and circumstances, using actions that create new opportunities for life with purpose.

Self-Directed Leadership

The goal of self-directed leadership development is to dream and begin an inner journey, directed by the heart that changes oneself and the world. Self-directed project leadership development has the same goal, except a leader uses projects as the trade, project management as the tool, and his consciousness as the instigator.

Self-directed leadership development for project leaders must include work that has redeeming value. This most likely will require some change to how one lives. A conscious desire to intentionally change the self and the community is the first and most important step for project managers and leaders.

The self-directed journey is not solely the result of circumstances and random effects, but also of the project leader's conscious actions and decisions about leadership transformation. No one is directing this journey for him. The individual initiates and directs it with the purpose to go deep within, then outward to the world.

The journey is also about project leadership: the accomplishment of goals through others. Therefore, a leadership journey must involve other people, and there is no better way to learn leadership than on projects that require others’ willing participation to accomplish a goal. There is no better leadership crucible than a project. The relationships with project stakeholders are the result of one's efforts to become conscious of oneself and others; the project leader becomes aware of how interdependent all human endeavors really are. This consciousness then leads to work that is not driven solely by materialistic needs, but by a consciousness to change the world in a positive manner.

Taking control of one's career and defining a future as a service-based project leader makes sense given the volatile project environment. Discovering and defining a learning agenda to capitalize on strengths and overcome gaps between one's real and ideal self is a continual exploration for the lifelong learner.

A service-based project leader's guide to intentional change follows these steps:

  1. Establish direction and commitment. Be true to oneself, defining values and establishing convictions about the benefits of service-based project leadership.
  2. Assess and acquire project leadership competencies. Learn key leadership competencies as defined within the leadership competency pyramid and build personal feedback mechanisms to assess them.
  3. Practice project leadership competencies. Define and execute real leadership experiences in projects that allow regular practice and experimentation with leadership competencies; use knowledge, build trust, demonstrate consultative leadership, and bolster courage.
  4. Serve a community. Lead by serving others’ interests, give back to the profession, mentor others, learn from others, and experience significance.

Creating Active Leadership Experiences

Leadership cannot just be practiced in a classroom or on a computer. To become an effective leader, one must learn by practicing in real-life situations. One learning agenda tool that allows a project leader to practice double loop learning while doing transformational work aligned with her core values and convictions, is the Active Leadership Experience™. To be active, the experience involves leadership experimentation on real projects. To be a leadership experience, it involves achieving results through others. To gain leadership experience, she must assimilate and retain the learning through the collection of experiences and careful consideration of feedback. Active Leadership Experiences provide the opportunity to reevaluate and reframe goals and values.

Achieving an Active Leadership Experience requires five essential steps. The first is internalizing the vision of the project and its net social outcomes and benefits. The second step is living the vision. It is not enough for the leader to believe in an internal vision and purpose; she must make the vision real by linking it to her convictions. Building trust-based relationships is the third step: trusting collaboration and cooperation among team members and other participants is needed to open communication and allow the project leader to exert power and influence. The fourth step is empowering and serving others’ efforts to achieve the vision. Project leaders should look for opportunities to serve; a situation with ambiguity, confusion, or communication breakdowns is a starting point from which to build a culture of service. The final step to an Active Leadership Experience is enabling team performance through creativity. When team members trust each other and are empowered, creativity flourishes. Trust admits that failures and setbacks are a part of the creative process. Trust takes risks that would otherwise not be taken.

How to Develop the Critical Five Leadership Competencies for Service-Based Project Leaders

Mastering the Service-Based Project Leader's Competency Pyramid equips a project manager to lead strategic initiatives. It is designed to enable project leaders to bring passion, compassion, patience, persistence, and new ideas into their projects.

The service-based project leader's competency pyramid

Exhibit 2 – The service-based project leader's competency pyramid

Building the Foundation of Knowledge, Skill, and Experience

The base of the pyramid is a leader's project and program management knowledge, skill, and experience. These three elements exist in the form of certifications and experience on various types of projects and with various tools, methodologies, and systems. Knowledge, skill, and experience are tightly integrated; turning knowledge into tangible skills requires action, and building experience requires execution of those skills. The presence of a certification is not the completion of the base—the base must continually expand if the pyramid is to grow wider and taller. From this base, project managers can launch successful careers as service-based project leaders.

Understanding Your Customers’ Business

The second layer of the pyramid is subject matter expertise. Subject matter expertise is domain expertise and knowledge of particular industries, applications, or processes. Service-based project leaders’ customer focus and transformational intent require that they understand the business of their customers— all of their customers. Customers are willing to pay for domain expertise because they are looking for insight and expertise from an objective party. If the customer is not seeking this insight, they are either getting it from somewhere else or they are not ready to create or sustain strategic change in their organization. Complexity and compressing timeframes require project leaders to gain credibility quickly; customers do not have the patience to educate a project leader on their business.

Building Trust

The third component of the pyramid is trust-based relationships, which must be formed with all types of customers —team members, sponsors, and important stakeholders. Trust is a cornerstone for leadership, yet studies show that lack of trust is reaching new heights. As global competition and organizational change accelerate, the reasons for low trust levels in organizations are obvious. People tend to trust less when more is at stake; strategic projects have much at stake. The instability created by constant organizational change and ambiguity makes trust-building difficult. These conditions hold for strategic initiatives and may even exacerbate the erosion of trust-building conditions.

Still, people do decide to trust. Entering into trust-based relationships takes time; they are more than relationships based on rational mutual business interests. Instead, these relationships are both rational and emotional (Maister et al., 2001). Trust-based relationships flow from a strong base of project and program management knowledge, skill, and experience and customer insight that provide a foundation for the remaining layers of the pyramid.

Creating Opportunities to be a Consultative Leader

The fourth layer of the pyramid is consultative leadership, which emerges directly out of trust-based relationships. Consultative leadership is the ability to lead others without direct authority. Rooted in servant leadership, consultative leadership combines strong advisory skills with compassion and service to enable strategic project leaders to achieve meaningful results through others. The demands of stakeholder management in strategic projects require a mixture of advisory and consultative skills to keep everyone moving with their free will toward project objectives. Since strategic projects’ results are often ambiguous and difficult to visualize and define, the service-based project leader provides consultative assistance that aligns the growth of the project organization with the desired results.

Consultative leadership skills are ultimately about getting people to commit to actions that drive project results and illuminate opportunities to grow others. Service-based project leaders are dedicated to giving themselves to others in order to achieve something greater than themselves.

Bolster Courage

Courage is the mortar that keeps the bricks of the pyramid together. The higher one works up the pyramid, the more courage is required. Trust-based relationships require the courage to know oneself better and to speak articulately and passionately about subjects in front of customers. It takes courage to develop a relationship that reaches beyond the safe rational to the less predictable emotional level. Many aspiring leaders do others’ work to avoid having to confront them with their deficiencies. It requires courage to be honest with people, but honesty without compassion is brutality. A service-based leader's behavior demonstrates honesty and sincerity through a commitment to improving the lives of others. They need courage to simultaneously transform themselves and to create and sustain change in the environment around them.

To lead strategic initiatives, these competencies enable building and managing relationships in an organization; using techniques to properly advise executives, sponsors, and stakeholders to increase to executive work efficiency; and driving good decision-making that achieves goals that enable organizational strategy.


Berry, L. L. (1999). Discovering the soul of service: Nine drivers of sustainable business success. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Craig, N. & Snook, S. (2014). From purpose to impact. Harvard Business Review, 2014(May), 106.

Fritz, R. (1989). The path of least resistance. New York, NY: Fawcett Columbine.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Kim, W. C. & Mauborgne, R. (2014). Blue ocean leadership. Harvard Business Review, 2014(May), 62.

Maister, D., Green, C. H., & Galford, R. M. (2000). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: The Free Press.

© 2014, Jack Ferraro, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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