Your leadership shapes your legacy



As projects increase in complexity, value, and global exposure to various cultures, project managers are facing more and more ethical challenges that become more problematic to handle. Jeffrey Winters estimates that since its founding, the World Bank has participated mostly passively in the corruption of roughly $US100 billion of its loan funds up to 2002—funds intended for development (Hostetler, 2011). A leader attending a recent meeting where I spoke stated: “I cannot afford to be completely ethical where I live and work—that is how I survive!” But is it ever okay to pay only lip service to high ethical standards? Is it ever okay to “turn a blind eye” when the stakes are high? What will people remember about us one day when we are retired? Our legacy.

In this paper we will ask ourselves some questions about what sort of legacies we wish to leave, and how we can do it. We will take some examples out of the lives of some respected public personalities and leaders and then attempt to draw a line to our own legacy in the workplace—specifically as it applies to projects. The effect of ethics and professional conduct on these legacies will receive specific focus.

The practices, traits, and attitudes of exemplary leaders will be tested against some theories, and hopefully readers will engage in doing some self-reflection toward identifying their own behaviour. This will serve to identify potential strengths and weaknesses, and to create a personal development plan to grow and improve leadership competence.

Some valuable resources will be provided for readers to apply in their everyday lives, and to help them deal with challenges crossing their way.

Scenario: You are a project manager who constructs large cooling towers for coal-fired power stations worth billions of dollars and therefore a good profit for your employer. You were awarded the first three of six such cooling towers on a power station in one of the “stan” countries, and these are under construction. Your brief is to ensure your company is awarded the other three units as well. The global economy is at an all-time low, and if your company does not get this work, it may close down and you will definitely lose your job. One of the client's senior personnel gives you some pointers on how to win the job. Your work so far has been good and they are satisfied, but some of your competitors already visited them and made some very lucrative offers to individuals on the condition that the work is awarded to them. If you do better, the work is yours! You share this with your medical doctor, and he nods and winks and helps you calculate how affordable some “smoothing fees” actually are. He wants nothing to do with it, but you had better get the job to keep your own employment—and that of some 1,450 others—intact. This weighs heavily on you! What do you do? You signed the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct as well as your own company's ethical code. Nobody will know! (Okay, a few will know, but they won't tell!) What would you do? Remember, it is for a good cause after all, and nobody will be hurt in the process. Discuss this amongst yourselves in groups for five minutes, and then tell the other groups how you would handle it and why.

Next scenario: Imagine a lonely border crossing somewhere hot, humid, and barren, and imagine you are stuck in a very hot car, with a driver who only speaks a foreign language. It is just you, the driver, and a dirty soldier with an AK-47 assault rifle and a bad attitude, and the sun is at its hottest. You are in a hurry and need to pass through this border to attend to some serious business before nightfall, so you can catch a plane back home first thing tomorrow. It is clear to you that your sweaty soul will not proceed forward or backward unless you pay the soldier a bribe. No secret about that, and no communication problems in this case—the language is universal. You are seriously concerned about your personal safety, and you start seeing images of cannibals cooking you in a large pot over an open fire like in the cartoons. What goes through your mind as you read this? What would you have done in this situation?

I hope it is clear by now that upholding high ethical standards is much easier said than done. It is easy to sit in a lounger in air-conditioned comfort and make decisions about how you would act, but it is quite difficult to practise these things. Of course, as we hopefully identified during the previous discussions, it has a lot to do with leadership skills and competencies.

What is more, we all build on our legacies as we go through life. One would be willing to put money on it that the boss in the first example was not in a unique situation, and probably had done the same thing before—in business and in his private life. How many marriages are broken due to unethical behaviour by one of the spouses? Is it more prevalent amongst senior staff? Senior, powerful people are subjected to more temptations to act unethically, often simply because they can, they have the power, and they can make it go away easily. Project managers are powerful people—beware!

How did some well-known “leaders” fare on this front?


Before we get into that, first a definition for leadership: According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, leadership can be described as:

  • The position or office of a leader,
  • Capacity or ability to lead,
  • A group of leaders, or
  • Guidance and/or direction.

Let's look at a few well-known (and less well-known) leadership figures of the past, and see how they do against these various definitions of leadership:

• Mahatma Gandhi img
• Margaret Thatcher img
• Adolf Hitler img
• Nelson Mandela img
• J. Bruce Ismay img
• Ernest Shackleton img
• Political “leader” of your choice

Now let's form an opinion about the legacies these people left. Is it not interesting how the leadership definition that applies to a person correlates to the type of legacy he or she left? More about that later.


We instinctively know that these correlations are not a product of luck. There must be some science behind it all. Yes, there is!

Perhaps we should first fetch a few of these trusted leadership concepts and theories and use them to set some background against which we can make our judgements. We are talking about things like:

  • Servant Leadership
    • Constant attention to the needs of others
    • Motivation without authority
    • Practised by thirty-five of Fortune magazine's “100 Best Companies to Work For”
  • PMI's Project Manager Competency Development Framework
    • Goes beyond A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)
    • Focused on project team environment
    • Includes leadership competency to “guide, inspire, and motivate team members”
  • Transformational Leadership
    • Inspires followers to take ownership
    • Matching followers’ strengths and weaknesses with task
    • Intellectual stimulation of followers toward creativity
    • Idealized influence—leader acts as role model
    • Transcend self-interest for the good of the team
  • Project Leadership Theory and Practice
    • Study of projects
    • Focused on satisfying needs of team members
    • Adaptable to various leadership styles
  • Situational Leadership
    • Adapted to maturity of individual and group
    • Telling / Selling / Participating / Delegating
    • One size does not fit all
  • High-Performance Teams
    • Team leader supports evolving needs of project team members
    • Forming / Storming / Norming / Performing
    • Director / Coordinator / Coach / Advisor
    • Specific roles and complementary talents and skills

Jim Kouzes, a well-respected guru in the field of leadership, said, “Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behaviour they expect of others. Leaders model the way” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).

He went on to say, “It is clear that if people anywhere are to willingly follow someone—whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, the front office or the front lines—they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).

It is thus clear from the research done by some very clever people that success depends on good leadership. Without that, there can be no success, whether in an undertaking, a business, or a project. Leadership is key, and I suspect you already know that. So what is the single largest positive influencer of leadership quality? Trust. We have seen it before: Without trust there can be no leadership of any significance. And where does trust originate?


Dan Ariely, a remarkable person, personal hero, and someone who has been through so much difficulties and suffering, presented a TED talk called “Our buggy moral code” (2009). During the talk, he explained how he contemplated the Enron disaster in the previous decade and did some scientific research to check whether it was just a case of a few bad apples being big cheaters, or whether our society is made up of many petty cheaters. This research was done at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, and he came to some amazing conclusions. You are urged to visit the TED website and download the talk. His conclusions were:

  • A lot of people can cheat—they cheat just a little bit.
  • When reminded about their morality, people cheat less.
  • The bigger the distance from the cheating (from the object of money), the more cheating happens.
  • When we see cheating around us (particularly within our in-group), cheating goes up.

This research was done on regular people like you and me. Nobody is beyond these capabilities, no matter how certain you are about yourself. Ethics takes hard work and effort; it is more of a lifestyle than an ad hoc whim.

Lastly, I wish to refer to some great research done by my colleague Michael O’Brochta (2013), who came up with what he calls “the five essentials of great project leadership.” These are:

  • Own the Environment
    • Project Environment
      • Culture, norms, behaviours, and values that contribute to the unique social and psychological aspects of the project
      • Influenced less by circumstance and more by leadership actions and behaviours
    • Impact
      • Way business is conducted and how team members are treated
      • Level of autonomy and accountability in decision making, the development of new ideas, how power and information flow, and the ethical and professional conduct of the team
      • How committed team members are
  • Act for the Long Term
    • Horizon
      • Beyond customer to include all stakeholders, especially the team
      • Beyond project completion to include future endeavours
      • Beyond tasks to include relationships
    • Impact
      • Although projects, by definition, are temporary endeavours, leadership and ethics are not
      • Trust and commitment spring from team-based relationships
  • Build a High-Performance Team
    • Success
      • Where team members achieve together to outperform
      • More time performing, less time storming / norming
      • Whole greater than sum of parts
    • Impact
      • Mutual respect for each other's roles / cross-training
      • Constant interest in feedback
      • Focused on common goal
  • Establish and Maintain Trust
    • Central
      • Reliance on another
      • Based on relationships between people
    • Impact
      • Actions speak louder than words
      • Without trust, there are no followers
      • Fosters judgment and decision making by team members
      • Accelerates knowledge-worker performance
  • Model Ethical Behaviour
    • Foundation
      • Moral difference between right and wrong conduct
      • Governed by internal and external standards
      • PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (Code)
      • PMI Ethical Decision-Making Framework (EDMF)
    • Impact
      • Essential for trust, leadership, project success
      • Demonstrate responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty
      • Failure undermines team member judgment and decision making

So much for background information and making the link between ethics and success.


This foundation, which was built by many knowledgeable academics and researchers, formed the basis of the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This code stands on four basic principles:

  • Responsibility:
    • It is our duty to take ownership for:
      • the decisions we make or fail to make
      • the actions we take or fail to take, and
      • the consequences that result.
  • Respect:
    • It is our duty to show a high regard for ourselves, others, and the resources entrusted to us. Resources entrusted to us may include people, money, reputation, the safety of others, and natural or environmental resources.
  • Fairness:
    • It is our duty to make decisions and act impartially and objectively.
    • Our conduct must be free from competing self-interest, prejudice, and favouritism.
  • Honesty:
    • It is our duty to:
      • understand the truth, and
      • act in a truthful manner, both in our communications and in our conduct.

I wish to invite you again to look at our previously mentioned leading figures, and let's apply the PMI Code of Ethics and Leadership to what we know of them or how we perceive them.

  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Nelson Mandela
  • J. Bruce Ismay
  • Ernest Shackleton
  • Political “leader” of your choice

How did they do in terms of

  • responsibility
  • respect
  • fairness, and
  • honesty?

So now we have some good research that supports the good correlation between the leaders’ legacies and how they were perceived to perform in terms of the PMI Code of Ethics and Leadership.


Getting back to our scenarios, we may act a bit differently now that we know more about how ethics and leadership are inextricably linked to each other. PMI also developed a very handy tool to use when in a tight ethics dilemma. It is called the Ethical Decision-Making Framework (EDMF) and it is available on the PMI website (Project Management Institute, 2012). In essence it works like this:

The PMI EDMF was developed by PMI members for PMI members and credential holders, and is aspirational and not mandatory. It is intended to be used as a guide for critical thinking throughout the ethical decision-making process, and starts as a sequence of questions and sub-questions to stimulate the user to recognize and assess the given issue. Users may find it useful to iterate back and forth between steps and challenge themselves with additional steps and questions. The answers to the questions proposed by the PMI EDMF are the responsibility of the user.

Simple process in essence:

  • Assessment:
    • Make sure all the facts about the issue are known and available.
  • Alternatives:
    • Consider the various choices that may exist.
  • Analysis:
    • Identify candidate decision and test its validity.
  • Apply:
    • Apply ethical principles to your candidate decision.
  • Action:
    • Make the right decision.


What is it that we wish to be remembered for besides being good project managers? I believe if I am remembered as a person who maintained high moral and ethical standards, it would be good. It all starts with us personally! In fact, I seriously doubt that anyone can be a good project manager (or any other type of leader) without exceptionally high ethical standards. It should be our dream to one day be remembered and talked about as someone who maintained high ethical standards. There is no doubt that being a good leader or being a good project manager will actually come by itself. Think about it carefully: It is all driven by ethics. So leadership is not the key—ethics is!

I hope that this talk will inspire readers to rethink their own behaviour and attitudes toward ethics and, where necessary, make drastic changes for the better. Such changes, if resulting in a stronger commitment to ethics, will certainly bring success and happiness.


Ariely, D. (2009, February). Dan Ariely: Our buggy moral code [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hostetler, C. (2011). Going from bad to good: Combating corporate corruption on World Bank-funded infrastructure projects. Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, 14(1). Retrieved from

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007) The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

O’Brochta, M. (2013, October). Great project leadership: Five essentials. PMI Global Congress, North America 2013, New Orleans, LA.

Project Management Institute. (2012). Ethical decision-making framework (paper number NA13 - LDR16). Retrieved from

© 2015, EMAG
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



Related Content