Project Management Institute

The leader side of the project manager


Project managers create a difference in today's enterprise. Sometimes it is exciting to wonder who that person is, that we call the project manger. If we look around organizations today, we could find many ways to describe that person. To start, he or she is a human being. With that comes a set of complex dimensions that affect the surroundings for every human being. To start, the dimension of the socioeconomic factors comes to mind. Legal dimensions and the understanding of the laws and regulations governing doing projects in the environment, where the project manager is operating, are important. There is an ethical dimension that affects the behavior of that human being, we call, the project manager. Ethics is an area that could create varied views, which could easily vary across cultures. Speaking of culture, sensitivity to the norms, practices, and approaches followed across differing cultures, becomes a fundamental element in shaping the individual called the project manager.

This project manager human being is put in a position of exposure. This person can make the headlines. If she were lucky, this would be a good thing. This is the case when projects are successful and are meeting the expectations for which they were undertaken. On the other hand, it could be an unfortunate situation and the project manager could be blamed for the failure of this endeavor, we call a project. Organizations today are missing an important realization in the fact that the success of the project manager is a reflection of how successful the organization is.

The project manager just happens to be at the focal point or the cross roads where many of the efforts combine towards a common agreed upon product or service that a project should achieve. Thus for the project manager to make a difference, he should be provided with the backing up of an organization that is focused on doing the right things, leadership, and the ability to do things right, management. Many of today's organizations lack one or both of these dimensions and therefore affect the ability of the project manager to be the best he can be. Of special importance is the first dimension, the leadership. If an organization's culture does not support doing the right things, project managers will be shooting in the dark, will lack the proper commitment, and will fail in selling that unclear direction further to the masses doing the work.

The Challenge

The big question would be how to enable the project manager to be competent in doing what is necessary for success in projects. The wording here is very important. The word chosen is “be” and not “become”. Be requires enabling the right atmosphere for the project manager to be present. The project manager would not be able to see the possibility of project success if there is no clarity on what that future state sought looks like. This is where the art of project management is. It is the art of creation and we can't create unless we have a clear vision. That vision comes form strong leadership that fosters an atmosphere of growth and potential for the project managers and their team members.

A bigger challenge resides in the differentiation between what could be trained and improved and what is not as trainable. Knowing what the competencies that project managers need to have is a first step, assessing where the project managers are is the next natural step, finding the gap between the two, and then a final step in taking the necessary steps to close some of these gas with the combination of training and on the job expertise building.

The person we then call a project manager is a multi-faceted individual in the set of knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that this person should provide. No wonder we have seen organizations refer to that person as a psychologist, a baby sitter, amongst many other descriptors. Part of the growing pain is trying to truly understand what that person should be capable of and what we should expect of him / her.

State of Today's Organizations

Organizations are moving towards a higher level of commitment to project work. The face of business is changing to the better. There is finally a realization that having a project management approach is crucial for project success. The surface is being scratched in recognizing the need for project managers, who are more than just individuals with titles. There is a growing recognition for the value of the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification and other equivalent globally recognized assessing mechanisms for project managers. The PMP certification is allowing organizations the assurance in covering the PM Knowledge Competence and the PM Performance Competence as laid out in the Project Management Competency Development Framework by the Project Management Institute (2002).

The awareness is increasing at the right levels of organizations that there is natural sense in managing business in the form of projects (Managing Organizations By Projects). As organizations pursue their journey of producing products and services, it is becoming valuable to the bottom line to have a systematic way by which they reach those goals.

The maturity of the project management function is reaching a higher level. With the ongoing focus on maturity, there is a realization that having a roadmap the organization could follow is beneficial to track progress to that outcome. Reaching maturity of itself is a project or more accurately a program. This program requires that we pursue a number of projects towards that maturity outcome. Maturity has to do with repeatability of patterns of behavior that allow organizations to excel. The core of behavior comes from individuals who lead the organization.

Due to the exposure of the project manager as the focal point of communications in the organization and as the integrator's of business in organizations of today, the focus on enhancing their competencies is of utmost importance. It is an entirely different crowd. They are individuals who have come up through ladders that vary to a great extent depending on the industry and the organizational maturity. In most cases they have come up from a technical background and now we are trying to shape them into a mold that is far from technical. To the contrary, the more they are attached to the technical background, the worst it is going to be in attempting to have them rounded in the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes they need to succeed as competent project managers. A complete revolution in our approach to developing project managers is needed. It is my estimation that we are only at the initial stages of understanding what we need to do to build this special group of key organization players.

Competency of the PM as a Leader

The artistic side of the project manager as a leader is what allows project managers to be who they could best be. Projects do not succeed in creating the wow for customers and society only because the best technology was used; they succeed because the collaboration of minds towards a well-defined objective took place as directed by proper leadership. It is that side of the project manager that makes the miracle happen. Every project is unique enough that if the leader did not create the right passion and ongoing momentum, the project is likely to get off track.

The industry competency standard set by the Project Management Institute in the Project Manager Competency Development (PMCD) Framework is a great milestone in the direction of enhancing the leadership attributes needed in project mangers of the future. The standard defines three key dimensions for competence. A PM Knowledge Competence, a PM Performance Competence, and a PM Personal Competence. In other words we are talking about knowledge, skills, and behaviors. The first two competencies are very important for project managers and are well covered through the training and application of the 9 knowledge areas of project management across the 5 process groups, as properly described in the PMBOK® Guide by the Project Management Institute. Most of this knowledge and skills could be trained and practiced well on the job. The harder element that makes the most impact is the behavior side. It is the element that also shapes the leader side of the project manager.

The focus here is then on the Personal Competencies of the PMCD Framework. It is my attempt to focus on some specific attributes of this competency that relate to the leader side and try to explore those further. The elements that I chose from the Framework for further elaboration in this context are: Operates with Intensity to Achieve Project Goals; Motivates Project Stakeholders in a Positive Way; Provides New Solutions in Planning and Delivering Projects; Operates with Individual Integrity and Personal Professionalism; Provides Accurate and Truthful Information; Takes Initiative When Required, Takes Accountability for and Delivers Project; Seeks New Opportunities; Strives For Best Practices; Strives to Understand All Project Stakeholders' Thoughts, Feelings, and Concerns; Listens and Responds to Others; Understands and Influences Project Team Members; Establishes and Maintains Relationships at the Right Level Inside and Outside the Organizations; Uses Assertiveness When Necessary; Sees the Project in a Holistic Way; Maintains Self Control; Creates an Environment of Confidence; Accepts Failure Positively; and Changes at the Required Pace.

The reason many of those have been chosen relates back to years of experience in the field of project management, watching the project managers who have succeeded as leaders and the ones who failed. This experience spanned engineering, construction, manufacturing, and product development. Also many of these elements come to the surface as fundamental ones in coaching sessions with organization leaders from various industries of today. The spotlight here is further giving special emphasis is to intensity; providing accurate and truthful information; striving for best practices; working on understanding stakeholders' thoughts, feelings and concerns; seeing and thinking in a holistic way; and creating an environment of confidence. These components are crucial for success in today's environment more than any time in history.

Let's take intensity. This is such a fundamental aspect of success as a leader. When the PM is intense, this means there is focus and drive. This is what leadership by example is about. For the PM to be that kind of a role model, it requires a degree of commitment from the organization and a delegation of that commitment to the project manager through individuals such as the project sponsor. Intensity is contagious and when team members see that in their leader, they operate from the same platform.

Providing accurate and truthful information is another valuable side of the leader. The project manager as the ongoing point of focus for the team's effort is expected to exemplify certain behaviors. The accuracy of information is fundamental in maintaining the PM's credibility and for creating an atmosphere of trust that is needed for project success. Organizations that are striving for excellence want to enhance the behavior of sharing the information as is, without any cleaning or filtering. It is that leadership example that the PM should create. Project managers should not want to have team members who would say everything is good and accurate, when it is not. We should strive for accuracy in our estimates and do lessons learned to help us improve in future projects.

Striving for best practices is a natural continuation to the last element. Project managers have a great responsibility for learning. They are the nucleus for a learning organization. Projects allow us to be exposed to many different ways to approaching business. This learning has to allow for using best practices in the industry and in the organization. The concept of lessons learned and the discipline of its use is an aspect of leadership that is underutilized. Leaders should be an example by taking responsibility for their own professional learning and then reflecting that in making their team members and others in the organization and across industry better in understanding and conducing project work.

Working on understanding stakeholders' thoughts, feelings and concerns is another fundamental component of this personal competency. This requires a high degree of openness and sensitivity. A degree of connection has to exist in ensuring that the PM is seeing the underlying causes for stakeholders' behaviors.

Building strong and open relationships that are based on a great deal of listening is crucial. Stakeholders all have different needs and expectations of the project. The keys to success as a leader are to know where they are coming from and to understand their motivations. A strong open communication style that is based on asking many of the right questions is desirable to succeed in this difficult task.

Leaders need to see and think in a holistic way. They are expected to take us to a horizon that we are not able to see. They are creators of an opportunity that has not been exactly created in the exact same way before. Part of the success in this element is to be able to connect different pieces of information together. Seeing the complexity in project data and still present that in a simple fashion is a talent that is not as easy to train and that distinguishes success in leaders. Establishing trends in data and in behavior that could be counted on for future possibilities is core to this element. This is coming from the integrator and strategic role that project managers need to play. This allows the PM to step across the silos of the enterprise and connect the dots as necessary.

Invention is also built on creating an environment of confidence. When team members are confident, they can do anything. It is the leader's ability to rid the team of its fears that makes a hero out of that person. When the leader exhibits trust in self and in others, the team is able to step to that level. Then the leader could work on what is limiting the team from old baggage and political fears. The project manager could be the catalyst that the team needs to create the change that projects are all about. That confidence is a manifestation of the trust needed to excel.

Industry Efforts in Assessing Leadership

Many of the world top organizations have invested effort and money in leadership development programs. As an example is what a top technology organization in the financial services world has done. The Securities Industry Automation Corporation (SIAC) uses a Leadership Development System (LDS). The system has 3 main components: Preparation, Development, and Follow-Up. Preparation is key in identifying strength and opportunities for the leader. This is based on a 360-degree assessment that allows the leader to set an Individual Development Plan (IDP). The development component of the system combines classroom with on-the-job experiences and uses coaching sessions to enhance leadership skills. Follow-Up allows for reinforcement and evaluation of the impact of the system on the organization and its people.

Many other organizations have created their version of a leadership development model to allow the organization to get the best out of its leaders and allow them to reach their potential. Studies conducted by Linkage indicated that Action Learning, 360-degree feedback, and exposure to senior executives and strategic agenda were cited as the top features in leadership development training. Support and involvement of senior management was named as the number one critical success factor in leadership initiatives. This correlates well with the many efforts in the project management field that have taken place across organizations in all industries. The more real support is created at the top levels of companies, the higher the chances of success in any development initiative, especially in creating valuable competencies in organizations.

A Model

An attempt to develop a competency model road map could start with just focusing on the elements of focus discussed earlier. Namely, intensity; providing accurate and truthful information; striving for best practices; working on understanding stakeholders' thoughts, feelings and concerns; seeing and thinking in a holistic way; and creating an environment of confidence. If we could envision these as key elements of a matrix, then a start to a model could be created. Exhibit 1 is an example of such a competency matrix for the leadership side of the project manager.

Competency Matrix for the Project Manager Leader

Exhibit 1 – Competency Matrix for the Project Manager Leader

The exhibit is using must-have and nice-to-have as a mechanism of prioritization to indicate the importance of the competency element to the success of building the leader in the PM. The P and the S are used to reflect Primary and Secondary focus respectively. The majority of the elements listed, could be best accomplished using on-the-job training rather than the classical classroom training. This is another reminder of the difficulty associated with the creation of some of these attributes in the person of the leader.


So what does love have to do with it? This is the human side of the leader and how love and vision drive the project manager towards the true valuable goals for the team and the organization. Love for the profession is the number one step. One of the key five tasks of project manager's professional responsibility, as outlined in PMI's role delineation study, indicates the importance of making the profession better. This is a hard one, since it depends on volunteering. This means that the leader is not being compensated directly for it. It is the passion and love that drive the PM to contribute to this key element of success in projects today. A better profession means a better understanding for project mangers' roles, better career paths, and eventually better project managers.

The project manager's love to the profession can easily drive the same passion in the love for the uniqueness of projects and the creation that projects bring. This love is reflected in the relationship with the team members, the attitude towards them, and the belief in their individuality. Once the PM realizes that no change is needed and that the main task is to work on what is hard enough, which is getting out what the team members already have and are good at, the PM succeeds. This is leadership based on love. No judging is allowed. Once the leader judges others, he/she is incapable of loving team members for who they are and for what they are able to contribute to the project and to the organization. If the leader does not love the team and other leaders, they will be considered lost. This love is an ongoing process. It has to be nurtured and maintained for it to continue to bring the fruits possible.

Love creates the thread of connectivity. It allows the leader to see the good in others. It allows people to grow to their potential. It allows for the openness needed for projects to succeed. Love invents the right meanings. It prevents us from giving meanings to things, people, or situations, which are not true. The project manager, as a leader has a great chance to spread the seeds of love across the enterprise and thus ensure a nicely woven organization.


The various discussions around the project manager as a leader and the organizational support for that function leads one to believe that there are attributes and behaviors for success. Vision is seen as one crucial element for success. Seeing the possibilities and staying focused and optimistic, allows the PM to align the project's efforts with the needs of the organization. The innovation side of the leader and the ongoing commitment to the profession, the organization, and the team members is seen as a key foundation for creating trust, ownership, and market leadership. The love of people and the trust in their potential allows for the creation of strong empowered teams.

The PM could become a role model as a leader by working on ongoing development of key elements of the competency framework. The leadership focus is on the personal competency due to the serious impact that it could create in the leader. This is also due to the difficulty in mastering this competence. It calls for a high degree of openness and trust in self and in others.

It is the wish of the author that we start giving enough and proper attention to the personal side of our leaders we call project managers. We have almost exhausted the policing side, the manager side. It is time for enhancing the leader side. This is where the cost benefit analysis is truly rewarding. Investing on creating leaders, who are able to connect the complex personal aspects of project teams and other project stakeholders could be the best potential area for saving millions of Euros. This is captured in enhanced productivity, in working on the right projects, in taking projects in the right direction, and in maintaining the focus on what is valuable.


Project Management Institute. (2002). Project Manager Competency Development Framework (PMCD. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2000). Project Management Professional (PMP) role delineation study. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Linkage Inc. (2000). Best Practices in Leadership Development Handbook. San Francisco, CA.:Jossey-Bass / Pfeiffer,

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.



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