What Is Project Leadership?


Lead projects with confidence. Try ProjectManager.com and plan, schedule and execute your projects online with your team. It's free for 30 days.

Get a Free 30-Day Trial of Our PM Software

This is the first in a new series we’re launching to explain and explore new and relevant terms used in project management. Each one of these ongoing articles will focus on a specific definition and summarize what it means for anyone leading a project.

Definition of Project Leadership

Project Leadership [proj-ekt; lee-der-ship]

Project leadership, most simply, is the act of leading a team towards the successful completion of a project. But of course, it is much more than that. It’s about getting something done well through others. Or, as Jennifer Bridges, PMP, pointed out in her recent video: it’s about “placing more emphasis on people” as opposed to the tactical management of tasks.

In fact, project leadership requires skills in both management and leadership. It is a soft skill; part art, part science.

Leadership is a topic everyone is obsessed about and, as this New Yorker article notes, a major growth industry. But is there a legitimate way to teach leadership or is it an innate talent? That’s up for debate. One thing for certain is that successful leadership can be tracked, studied, and replicated.

Different Leadership Styles

Look over the management style of anyone in charge of any project, and you’’ll find a myriad ways in which they accomplish their goals and set a tone of leadership. Much of these differences are based on the person’s personality and what style of leadership they natural gravitate towards.

That’s where Susanne Madsen’s project leadership matrix comes in handy. It is a tool that tells you what type of leader you are, and with that knowledge you can tweak your technique to become a better leader. The leadership matrix is made up of four parts:

  1. Reactive people-leadership
  2. Reactive task management
  3. Proactive people-leadership
  4. Proactive task management

It’s unlikely that you sit only in one quadrant, since most of us are a sampling of all of these parts. However, the best project managers are those who emphasis a proactive leadership style.

Related: How to Manage Better with Transformational Leadership

It’s Not Just Managing Tasks, But Managing People

There’s a difference between management and leadership, as our contributor and leadership coach Susanne Madsen points out. While project leadership is a combination of both skills, as we noted, it leans heavily on working efficiently with team members. It’s important to remember, as obvious as it may sound, that people aren’t tasks.

Related: How to Manage with Servant Leadership

Managers are often more comfortable with process and methodologies. They wield authority, tell people what to do and aggressively push that agenda. These are necessary attributes for getting the job done.

However, the job isn’t done by automatons, and to treat your flesh-and-blood team in an abstract way is to risk disaster. That’s where project leadership comes in. As a leader your focus is on inspiring and empowering your team. By asking rather than demanding help you get buy-in and loyalty. You work to motivate and speak to the team’s emotional core rather than offering a dry intellectualism that omits the human part of the process.

project leadership requires a high emotional intelligence

It may seem a bit touchy-feely – and it is – but these soft skills are the beating heart of project leadership. Scheduling, monitoring, and reporting is the bedrock on which you build your project, but you team isn’t a line item on a spreadsheet. Team morale may not be as quantifiable as milestones on a timeline, but treat them like widgets and you threaten the success of your project.

What Makes a Good Project Leader?

Knowing what project leadership is leads to the question: How can this be applied to make a good project manager? The traits that managers with project leadership share are outlined in this video. What most leaders share are these following 10 attributes:

  1. They are grounded and centered
  2. They are aware and mindful
  3. They create solutions
  4. They are analytical
  5. They can evaluate risk
  6. They can generate a sense of urgency
  7. They are insightful
  8. They build cohesion
  9. They motivate people
  10. They achieve results

These are not chiseled in stone, of course. Leadership is fluid. Just as dealing with people requires nuance, so does determining what makes up a good leader. Still, these 10 points are pillars on which you can build project leadership.

A good place to start is with project leaders you respect, who have experience and have lead projects in ways that you wish to emulate. Seeking out help from a mentor is recommended, because they can add a depth of dimension to the process that all the books in the world can never touch.

Communication is the key

If project leadership is knowing your most valuable resources are your team members and, that on top of the fundamentals to getting the job done, a project manager must excel at leading those people, then the most valuable tool at your command is clear communications. Being able to get across what you want and how you want it done isn’t as easy as it may seem.

Communications is not only a means by which you can articulate needs and wants, but it provides boundaries for team members so they can act independently, without you micromanaging them. As our contributor Mike Clayton wrote, “The more that your team members know, the more they can act autonomously and make the right choices.” That frees you up to better communicate to your stakeholders. Leadership is also being accountable to those you report to.

To make sure your communications skills are sharp you can follow this simple framework, which applies to both written and spoken communications. First you must be compelling, in that your message has to arouse interest and engage the subject. Secondly, you have to be persuasive. If you’re not able to influence the person your trying to reach, if they cannot understand and agree with what you’re saying, you’ll never change their thinking or habits. Finally, be powerful. That means you have to communicate effectively and efficiently. The proper response to your communication should be action.

good project communications is good project governance

In Conclusion

The great thing about leadership is that it’s an antidote to complacency. You cannot simply follow a set of rules and become a leader. You must react in the moment and within context, using those rules but not ruled by them. It makes project leadership an easy term to describe but a lifelong goal to achieve.

Of course a leader needs to have the right tools at hand in order to best achieve their project goals. A collaborative, online suite of software solutions created specifically for the project manager, ProjectManager.com fits the bill. With real-time views of scheduling, monitoring, and reporting, the project is always within sight and easily directed. Try it yourself for free with this 30-day trial.

Related Posts

Deliver Your Projects
On Time and Under Budget

Start planning your projects.

Start 30-Day Free Trial