The essential role of leadership in managing mega projects

Chairman's Projects Advisor, Roads and Transport Authority, Dubai, United Arab Emirates


This paper explores the role of leadership in managing and completing the Dubai Metro project. The Dubai Metro, 75 kilometers long with 47 stations, is the longest driverless railway system to be constructed in one project. The first phase of the project was completed on time, within the record time frame of 49 months. This success is mainly attributable to the strong leadership provided by the Roads and Transport Authority—RTA (the project owner). This paper describes the different leadership characteristics displayed by RTA, which ensured the successful completion of the project; these characteristics included a clear vision and influence, strong decision-making skills, determination, momentum, control, regular follow-up and, above all, a positive attitude. The paper concludes by summarizing the important lessons learned from the successful leadership of this mega project.


Mega projects are the key drivers of economic progress. The mega projects undertaken in the construction of infrastructure are becoming more popular with national and local governments and are usually characterized by huge budgets, long durations, and many consultants, contractors, and subcontractors. Because of these characteristics, mega projects require the application of highly sophisticated project management skills, methodologies, and processes. One of the most important components of modern project management is effective leadership. A good leader is what makes the difference between a highly successful project and one that is not so successful; this is especially true in mega projects in which a small percentage of cost savings usually translates into millions of dollars.

Hauswirth, Hoffman, Kane, Ozobu, Thomas, and Wong, (2004) stated that in order for mega projects to succeed, the project managers must implement four key elements of collaborative leadership: constituency for change, process expertise, content expertise, and strong facilitative leadership.

Pantazides (2005) contends that systems for managing mega project quality must be risk based as well as process driven. He advocates reliance on a competently led working team and a fully integrated, process-based quality management system to ensure that all project risks are covered and that the quality targets are met.

The Alberta Executive Development Authority (AEDA, 2004) recommended several measures to ensure mega project excellence. The most significant of these recommendations were the needs to strengthen the internal project management and leadership capabilities and divide the mega project into manageable components.

Van Marrewijk (2005) emphasized the importance of the leader's commitment to the success of mega projects and stated that ordinary traditional control is not sufficient in these types of projects due to their size and complexity. The reviewed literature agrees that leadership is a major factor in the success of mega projects. Regardless of the type of leadership, above all, mega projects require the strong leadership of a competent and charismatic leader.

This paper aims to explore and record the important role of leadership in the successful completion of the Dubai Metro project. The first phase of this important mega project was completed, as scheduled, on 9 September 2009. The success of the project can be attributed to the strong and effective leadership exhibited by Mattar Al Tayer, the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of the Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai.

Definition of Mega Projects

It is often asked: “What defines a mega project?” As with beauty, “mega” is in the eye of the beholder, and the answer usually lies in the criteria used to define the mega project. The criteria for defining a mega a project can include, but are not limited to, a combination of the following:

  1. Monetary budget
  2. Physical size (height, length, width)
  3. Size of labor force
  4. Complexity and uniqueness
  5. The nature of the project impact (economic, social, political)
  6. The spread of the project impact (local, national, regional, international)

In most cases, due to the large budgets involved, mega projects can only be undertaken by governments. Examples of mega projects include: the Burj Dubai (the world's tallest high-rise building), the Space Shuttle, and the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt. Each of these projects fulfills one, two or, at most, three of the above criteria. The Dubai Metro, however, fulfills most of the criteria for “mega,” as described below.

The Dubai Metro as a Mega Project

In terms of size, the Dubai Metro, with its 75-kilometer length and 47 stations, is the largest driverless metro system to be built under a single contract. In terms of budget, the final project budget of approximately US$7.5 Billion may exceed the annual budget of some small nations. In terms of labor force, the Dubai Metro project employed five main contractors, over 160 sub-contractors, and more than 30,000 workers. Due to its nature, the Dubai Metro project employed many varying disciplines, including civil, architectural, electrical, mechanical, electronics, communications, and computer software, among others. Although some of the systems used in the Dubai Metro were tried and tested in other projects, their applications in one single project were unique to the Dubai Metro. The Dubai Metro's impact encompasses several fields, including the economic, social, and political arenas. Moreover, the project's impact is not limited to its immediate surroundings (in this case, the emirate of Dubai) but also extends to cover the entire country of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E). On the opening day of the Dubai Metro, the Vice President of the United Arab Emirates emphasized the importance of the Metro project with the following quote: “The (Metro) project is Emirate's socioeconomic future.” It can even be argued that the Dubai Metro has a regional impact because it has inspired other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to start building their own metro systems.

The Metro project consists of two lines: the red line and the green line. Exhibit 1 provides some vital statistics about the two lines, including length, number of stations, depots, and car parks.

On 9 September 2009, the first phase of the Metro opened on schedule and has been operating since then at 99% availability and punctuality rates. In the first six months of operation, the Dubai Metro transported over 10 million passengers.

Features of the Dubai Metro Project

Exhibit 1- Features of the Dubai Metro Project

The red line, which opened on 9 September 2009, was completed in just 49 months from the start of construction. Exhibit 2 shows the main milestones of the red line project.

Milestones of the Red Line of Dubai Metro

Exhibit 2- Milestones of the Red Line of Dubai Metro.

Leadership in Mega Project Management

Gray and Larson (2008) state that leadership in project management is characterized by the ability to cope with change. This cannot be truer than in mega projects in which the project manager/leader must recognize the need to change, initiate change, provide direction and motivation and, last but not least, innovate and adapt as necessary. In mega projects, the project manager/leader faces several dilemmas, including:

  • Seeing the big picture, while keeping an eye on the important details
  • Innovating and maintaining stability at the same time
  • Stressing the team while motivating individuals
  • Adapting a hands-on as well as a hands-off approach
  • Being firm and flexible at the same time

The above characteristics and traits, in addition to many others, were displayed by Mattar Al Tayer, the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of the Roads and Transport Authority while leading the Metro project. Mr. Al Tayer's role in the final phase of the red line, leading to its completion, is explained in the following section.

The Leadership of the Dubai Metro Mega Project

The characteristics and traits displayed by Mr. Al Tayer in completing the Dubai Metro project can be classified into the following five categories of leadership excellence.


The clear vision of H.H. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, for the future of Dubai inspired the chairman of RTA to develop his own vision for RTA, in general, and the Metro project in particular. The chairman displayed a strong and clear vision of the projected 9 September 2009 date and never accepted any change that could have altered the goal of this completion date. The chairman could see the importance of completing the project on time and its subsequent positive impact on the credibility and reputation of Dubai and the RTA. Through his perseverance and insistence, this vision was conveyed to all levels of the project management hierarchy and embraced by all parties involved in the project, including the consultants, the contractors, the sub-contractors, the operators, and the safety assessors. With everyone focused on the same vision, each and every party always found ways to keep the project on track. It is worth mentioning here that the strong vision of Mr. Al Tayer did not stop him from noticing and attending to the important details of the project.

Trust and Team Work

The chairman had absolute trust in the team working with him; moreover, he selected team leaders who believed in him and his vision and who were honest and not afraid to admit their mistakes. The chairman promoted a team culture based on trust and cooperation and formed strong, well-balanced teams with motivated leaders.


The chairman possessed the willpower and ability to influence all the players in the project at all levels. His approach succeeded with the chairpersons of major corporations as well as the project engineers of the smallest subcontractors working on the project. With his strong influence, the chairman managed to achieve the following: the subcontractors met deadlines that were almost impossible to meet, the consultant staff developed extremely creative solutions to insurmountable problems, and everyone else worked around the clock. Without Mr. Al Tayar's extraordinary influence, the project would have never been completed on time.

Technical Management

Although the chairman was not a rail engineer, he quickly developed strong technical knowledge in the rail field. He adapted a self-learning approach, knew his limitations, admitted to what he did not know, asked the experts, and never stopped or shied away from asking questions. The chairman also used mind-maps to ensure that all the important issues were considered for every facet of the project; moreover, the chairman always had both short- and long-term plans for solving every problem, developed alternative plans, and maintained a list of alternative staff members.

The Right Decisions at the Right Time

The chairman managed to make almost all the right decisions at the right times. One major decision made by Mr. Al Tayer was the decision to personally take over the leadership of the project in May 2009. In the author's opinion, it was this decision that enabled the completion of the project on 9 September 2009. The second major decision was the decision to open only ten stations in order to meet the 9 September 2009 deadline. The third example was the decision to bring in external experts from France to assess the status of the project and advise on the best way complete the project going forward. Other examples included the decisions to replace some of the contractors’ station managers and subcontractors’ engineers, the formation of teams, rotation of site staff, and on-the-spot reward.

Momentum, Control, and Follow-Through

Mr. Al Tayer kept the project momentum going through sheer willpower and energy. He continuously set progressive and aggressive deadlines for the consultants, contractors, and subcontractors. Moreover, he met with all major players on a regular basis, starting with weekly site visits and meetings in early June to weekly site visits and daily meetings in July and August. For each site visit, the chairman implemented a clear plan of checking and following up on the work, and the monitoring and reporting were regular and constant. Mr. Al Tayer did not wait until the due date of each task to follow up and always made sure that work stayed on track at multiple points along the way. The chairman used multiple sources of information to ensure the accuracy of reporting and maintained control by not relying on one expert opinion but by using numerous experts. In each meeting, several progress reports were presented and discussed, including:

  • Status of outstanding items from the previous meeting
  • Manpower status report
  • Civil works progress report
  • Road works progress report
  • Electromechanical works progress report
  • Systems progress report
  • Operational readiness report
  • Safety certification status report


In business situations, Mr. Al Tayer always exhibits a positive, no-nonsense, can-do attitude. On the Metro project, this attitude was one of the cornerstones of the success of the project. Every other party on the project adapted this can-do attitude and this resulted in overcoming some problems and obstacles that, at the time, seemed unsolvable. One example of this type of problem was the tunnel ventilation system, which experienced many problems in the testing and commissioning phases. The chairman would not take “no” for an answer and always pushed the consultants, the contractors, and the subcontractors to resolve the issues as soon as possible. Another example of the effect of a positive attitude is the story about the Metro operator, “Serco.” Serco's management style demonstrated a cautious attitude toward the short trial operations period. Mr. Al Tayer continued to emphasize the necessity of working with what was available, and now Serco is operating the Metro with 98% availability and punctuality rates and is extremely proud of it. This, again, could never have been achieved without the positive can-do attitude that Mr. Al Tayer brought to the project, which inspired the team. The chairman also took risks when he believed he was right, always challenged the majority opinion, and believed that the majority opinion could be swayed by only one individual.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper explored the role of leadership in managing and successfully completing the Dubai Metro project on time. The paper also explained the definition of mega projects as well as characteristics of the Dubai Metro that qualify it to be a mega project of gigantic proportions. The paper also discussed the importance of leadership in project management, with a special emphasis on mega projects. The Dubai Metro project is then discussed in detail, and several conclusions could be drawn, as summarized below:

  1. Strong leadership is probably the most important success factor in the completion of mega projects.
  2. Mega projects need motivated leaders who embrace excellence and empower their teams.
  3. Leaders of mega projects must have the ability to recognize the need for changes and manage the changes in the most effective and efficient manner possible.
  4. Leaders of mega projects must face and deal with several dilemmas, including but not limited to:

    a. Seeing the big picture and the important details at the same time

    b. Innovating and maintaining stability

    c. Being firm yet flexible

  5. For mega projects to succeed, the project leader must possess, display, and apply the following characteristics of leadership excellence:

    a. A clear, strong, and unwavering vision is probably the most important factor for leadership success in a project. However, having the vision is not enough—it must be conveyed and communicated to all parties in the project. When all parties embrace the vision, they always find ways to realize it.

    b. Trust and teamwork—a situation in which the leader has trust in his or her team and the team has absolute trust in the leader and his or her vision. Leaders must be honest in their reporting and not be afraid to admit their mistakes.

    c. Influence has been used to define leadership in several publications. This cannot be truer than in the leadership of mega projects. The mega project leader should have the willpower and ability to influence all the major players in the project, starting with the chairpersons of large corporations through to the project engineers of small subcontractors.

    d. Technical knowledge: Leaders of mega projects must have sufficient technical knowledge to manage the projects. If the leader does not possess the technical knowledge, he or she must develop a self-learning approach in which he or she is not afraid to ask the experts when he or she does not know something. From technical knowledge stems the leader's ability to develop short-and long-term plans, as well as alternative plans for each and every situation.

    e. The right decisions must be made at the right times by the mega project leader. This requires the leader to be constantly aware of the project's dynamics and the progress of the different components. The leader's decisions can range from major decisions about changing the project's scope to minor decisions about changing the finishing materials on a small part of the project.

    f. Momentum, control, and follow-through must be maintained by the leader at all times throughout the project. To keep the momentum going, progressive deadlines need to be set for all the major contractors and subcontractors. Regular follow-up meetings must be held to ensure that every party is fulfilling its obligations and that the project remains on track. Multiple sources of information must be used to ensure accuracy of information, and multiple expert opinions must be solicited to enable the right decisions to be made.

    g. Attitude: A positive, no-nonsense, can-do attitude must be adopted by the mega project leader. This type of attitude, when conveyed and embraced by all parties in the project, will work miracles and ensure that the project is successful. Leaders of mega projects must also possess a risk-taking attitude.

Alberta Executive Development Authority, (AEDA) (2004). Mega project excellence: Preparing for Alberta's legacy. Alberta, Canada, p 71.

Bahl, R., Bennett, A., & Mangalorkar, R. (2003). The keys to managing mega-projects. A.T. Kearney Executive Agenda, Volume VI, Number 1, pp 76–83.

Bossidy, L., & Charan, R. (2002). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. Crown Publishing Group, USA, p 278.

Gray, C.F., & Larson, E.W. (2008). Project management: The managerial process. Fourth Edition, McGraw Hill Publishing Company, New York, NY, USA, p 498.

Hauswirth, D.B., Hoffman, D.M., Kane, J. F., Ozobu, I. L., Thomas, C.L., & Wong, P.W. (2004). Collaborative leadership: Success stories in transportation mega projects. University of Maryland University College, Maryland, USA, p 74.

Kerzner, H. (2007). Project management: A systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling, 8th Edition, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York, NY, USA, p 891.

Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Thomas Nelson Publishers, USA, p 226.

Pantazides, L. (2005). Managing quality on transportation mega projects. ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement Proceedings, Seattle, WA, Vol. 59, May 2005, pp 289–297.

Project Management Institute (2006). The standard for program management. Newtown Square, PA, USA.

Project Management Institute (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition, Newtown Square, PA, USA.

Van Marrewijk, A. (2005). Strategies of cooperation: Control and commitment in mega-projects. M@n@gement, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp 89–104.

© 2010 Hamdy
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC



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