A leader is like a rudder on a boat steering the ship and keeping it on course. But the boat wouldn’t float without a sound hull, it’d coast aimlessly without sails and wouldn’t be able to catch the wind if it had no crew.

That’s just another way of saying that leadership isn’t barking orders. In project management a leader is part of an integrated team with the shared responsibility of the team and stakeholders to deliver a project on time and within budget.

Project leaders rely on data, and use tools like dashboards, Gantt charts and time tracking software to achieve project success. ProjectManager offers all of these features and more—and project leaders love to use it.

A screenshot of a project management dashboard in ProjectManager

ProjectManager’s dashboards and live data help project leaders make the right decisions at the right time – Try it free

Leadership is often misunderstood in general and in particular in project management, yet it’s one of the most important positions on the project team. If you’re looking to run a more effective project, then you need to define leadership in project management.

Leadership isn’t one thing. There are many different styles and combinations of those types. We’ll go into more detail, but these are the most common forms of leadership.

  • Transformational
  • Leader-Member Exchange
  • Adaptive
  • Strengths-Based
  • Servant
  • Transactional

What is Project Leadership?

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. But project leadership requires skills in both managing people and tasks. It is a soft skill; part art, part science.

If you’re a practical-minded person you might not like such an open-ended definition. But the first mistake in trying to define leadership is thinking that it’s one thing. You must be willing to think broadly and accept that there are many different types of leaders in the world and even in the more rarefied world of project management.

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 naturally gravitate towards.

That’s where a 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 emphasize a proactive leadership style.

What is a Project Leader?

A project leader is someone who leads a project, but that doesn’t really get to the bottom of this seemingly simple title. There are project managers, who are responsible for many of the aspects that we associate with leadership. They assemble the team, devise the plan and manage resources to maintain the schedule and keep within budget.

But leadership is a quality that should be expressed by everyone. It’s not just leading by example, such as the project manager rolling up their sleeves and joining in on the work as needed, but everyone on the project team must take a leadership role. They need to own their responsibilities and manage the tasks assigned to them. The last thing anyone wants is a team of robots who can’t make a move without being directed.

That said, there is a project leader and their job is different than that of the team they manage. They have to straddle many worlds being both technically organizationally adept, able to engage effectively across boundaries, connecting talent with key challenges. Think of a project leader as the consummate integrator. They help others succeed.

What Makes a Good Project Leader?

Project leadership is difficult work, and while most project managers are adept at leveraging the tools and processes of the trade, there’s no single body of knowledge to learn and pass a test on when it comes to leading successfully. It’s the ultimate school where learning by doing is the only way forward.

However, if you look over the way successful leaders work there are commonalities. 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.

6 Ideas to Strengthen as a Project Leader

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.

Another thing to do is keep in mind these six concepts that are like a leadership workout. Practice them and you’ll strengthen your leadership muscles.

1. Mind the Gap

Take time to explore the gap between navigating and leveraging the tools of the trade and leading others. It’s leadership in a classic sense, with the goal to bring to life a group of individuals that coalesce as a team and pursue high performance. Easy words, tough tasks, but worth the investment in time and attention.

2. Reframe Your Challenge: It’s Not the Project, It’s the Team

The issue you face isn’t project execution, it’s team development. If you take care of the team and ensure that you form and frame the right environment, the team will take care of the initiative.

3. Let the Team Define Your Role

Perform a pre-post mortem on your role as leader. Ask your team: “At the end of this project when we are successful, what will you say that I did?” Listen carefully and you will hear many of the raw ingredients of high performance teams. From alignment on the purpose of the project to treating team members with respect to ensuring fair and even accountability to setting expectations high to not micro-managing, this question will prompt a torrent of important answers. Take notes. These define the raw content of your job description as project leader.

4. Teach Your Team How to Talk

In my many observations of teams struggling to perform, one of the common performance killers is an inability to navigate the swirl of emotions, biases, opinions and agendas that invade all of our group discussions. Spend time focusing on strengthening your facilitation skills.

5. Teach Your Teams How to Decide

Teams succeed or fail based on how they navigate moments of truth in the form of key, often irreversible decisions. And while strengthening your team’s ability to talk as outlined above is important, supporting the development of effective decision-making processes is mission critical.

Given the complexity of group decision-making, including our tendency to draw on our own unique prior experiences and to unknowingly impose our biases on a decision-choice, helping a group develop effective decision-making processes is no small task. You need a process. Look for the one that works for your organization and team.

6. Everyone Communicates, Leaders Connect

The people on your team are neither resources nor automatons. Great leaders at all levels strive to connect with team members on something a bit more personal than status meetings and reports. They take the time to engage and where appropriate, they strive to learn about the aspirations and even personal interests of their team members.

How to Lead a Project with Project Management Tools

ProjectManager is an award-winning tool that helps project managers organize their plans and teams, fostering leadership through practical means that lead to projects coming in on time and within budget. The cloud-based software gives managers transparency into their team’s work while allowing teams to collaborate and work better together.

When you use this project management tool you’re able to provide detailed directions on executing tasks and give teams the freedom to manage their own work. The lines of communication are always open with real-time data that keeps everyone updated. Here’s how it works:

Make a Plan

Plans are the backbone of your project. They hold everything together. Without a plan to schedule tasks and resources, no amount of leadership is going to help you.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart, showing customization alternatives for project management leaders

Create a plan on an interactive Gantt chart, import tasks, add them manually or use templates to get started. They will populate a project timeline where you can see everything in one place. Use a scope of work document to assist in your planning.

Schedule the Work

Once in a Gantt chart, you can organize your tasks into a schedule, with due dates, dependencies, milestones, etc. This places it within a specific timeframe.

ProjectManager's Gantt chart, the perfect tool for leaders in project management

Add due dates and priorities to each task to show teams what must get done and by when. Add task descriptions and files to the tasks. Teams can comment at the task level to collaborate.

Balance the Workload

Leaders have to assign and then make sure teams have the capacity and resources to execute those tasks according to the schedule. Keeping the workload balanced adds productivity.

ProjectManager's workload management tools are ideal to apply leadership in project management

Check your resources on the software. The workload chart, which is color-coded, shows who has too many tasks. Then reallocate their work from that page and balance the workload.

Track the Progress

Leaders don’t just plan, they have to make sure things are proceeding as planned. That means monitoring and tracking progress, so they can adjust resources as needed.

ProjectManager’s dashboard view, which shows six key metrics on a project

View your progress as it happens with a real-time dashboard that calculates data it automatically collects and displays for an instant status report on time, costs and more.

Report to Stakeholders

Gathering accurate data helps project managers make better decisions. It’s also a communication tool to keep stakeholders with a vested interest in the project in the loop.

ProjecManager's portfolio management page is ideal for leaders

Generate reports with just one click and filter them to see just the information you want on timesheets, tasks and more. Then easily share at stakeholders presentations.

Top 6 Leadership Theories

Everyone has a theory on what makes a great leader, and with good reason. Leadership is a quality that’s important for success and yet so difficult to define. But great leadership isn’t subjective. People have studied leadership.

A strong understanding of leadership provides us with a variety of legitimate options for different scenarios, and helps a person set up themselves, their team or company for success. People are more intentional than reactional when it comes to leadership.

The origins of how we have come to define leadership have historic roots. Many might remember the great man theory, which dates back to the 1800s and speaks to men with dominant personalities. They were destined for greatness due to having innate characteristics that made them leaders.

The idea of a born leader, and that leaders are born male, is obviously outdated and has since been challenged. Today, there are many theories of leadership that attempt to explain what makes a great leader. Let’s look at six of these leadership theories:

1. Transformational

James MacGregor Burns was a political sociologist in the 1700s, who saw leadership qualities falling under two types. Transactional leaders are those who influence others by what they offer in exchange for their help.

Transformational leaders are connected to their followers in such a way that it raises the level of motivation and morality, committed to a collective good. Four factors play into transformational leadership: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized concern.

2. Leader-Member Exchange

This is a leadership theory based on that there are two groups in opposition, the in-group and the out-group members. Think of it like high school, where there’s the popular kids and the outcasts.

Project managers can favor and trust certain members of their team, giving them more responsibility, while others they might not think well of and so these team members get the more mundane tasks. How these relationships are formed is at the heart of this theory.

3. Adaptive

An adaptive leader is one who can mobilize people to act on tough challenges, even if the solutions to those challenges are not readily apparent.

This type of leadership is all about adapting and thriving in a challenging environment. This is done by gradually, but meaningfully, accepting a process of change both individually and collectively.

4. Strengths-Based

The belief that it’s individual strength that leads to successful leadership; when people use their strengths and competency to lead, they’re sure to do a good job.

It is a method that works to maximize the efficiency, productivity and success of a project by focusing on your strengths and continuing to develop them. It’s basic tenet is that people can grow exponentially by building on their strengths rather than weaknesses.

5. Servant

Popularized by Robert Greenleaf, the servant leadership theory places the needs of others over their own self-interest. The idea is that you serve first, shifting the power to those who are being led.

  • Bureaucratic (Transactional): Leadership through normative rules, regulations, strict discipline and systematic control.
  • Traditional (Feudal): Leadership over followers who believe in the legitimacy of governance, personal loyalty and faithfulness.
  • Charismatic (Transformer): Leadership that is characterized by dedication, illumination and heroism, where followers have personal trust in a leader’s charisma, vision and mission.

The transactional leader motivates teams mostly through appealing to their self-interest. Therefore, a transactional leader’s power is directly related to their formal authority in the organization.

Leadership vs. Management: What’s the Difference?

Is leadership good and management bad? Of course not, both are important. But there is a difference. There are many who stand on one side or the other of the great divide between leadership and management, demonizing one and praising the other.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of either persuasive leaders who have done terrible things or efficient managers who lack the soft skills to lead and inspire. Let’s start by looking at the differences between the two and why a combination of both is ideal.


Leaders inspire others to share their vision, they motivate others to act on that vision, encourage others and help them overcome obstacles in pursuit of that vision.

Here is a list of some of the core values of a strong leader.

  1. Communication: The ability to disseminate information and listen actively.
  2. Motivation: Getting people to want to do what you need them to do.
  3. Delegation: Knowing that you can’t do everything and trusting others to help you carry the load by completing assigned tasks.
  4. Positivity: Keeping a positive attitude, regardless of the situation, helps with morale.
  5. Trustworthiness: People aren’t going to listen to you or do what you ask if you don’t first instill a sense of trust.
  6. Creativity: There will always be problems that can’t be solved by rote; you must think creatively and be open to taking chances. Employ divergent thinking to find unique solutions.
  7. Feedback: Leadership doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Listen to your team, stakeholders, advisors, mentors, etc., and take their opinions seriously.
  8. Responsibility: You can’t expect people to follow you if you’re not taking responsibility for the bigger picture and your behavior.
  9. Commitment: You also cannot expect to lead others if you are not committed to the project.
  10. Flexibility: Things change, and rigidity can ruin a project, so you must be willing to adapt and not hold too tightly to anything.


What is management? It’s the process of dealing with or controlling things or people. But the emphasis does tend to be on things rather than people.

Managers are people who plan, organize and coordinate. They are methodical and are always reassessing their process to make sure they’re progressing as planned. If not, they tweak to get back to their baseline assessment.

Here are 10 of what are considered the most important skills for any manager to have:

  1. Interpersonal Skills: While managers aren’t exclusively dealing with people, they still must interface with them, and the better they do so, the smoother the management process.
  2. Communications: Being able to manage is being able to communicate what you need to who needs to do it.
  3. Motivation: The same is true for motivating people to follow your management lead.
  4. Organization: You must be organized. Management is made up of many parts, and they cannot be handled on the fly.
  5. Delegation: No one can manage everything themselves, and if they try, they’re going to fail. So, share responsibilities and delegate tasks to others.
  6. Forward Planning: A manager is a planner who looks towards the future and how to set themselves up for it today.
  7. Strategic Thinking: Part of that planning is thinking strategically about the project, the organization and how to align them moving forward.
  8. Problem Solving: Managers face issues daily, and they must think creatively to solve them.
  9. Commercial Awareness: Managers are not working in a vacuum and need to have a keen sense of the business and commercial environment in which they operate.
  10. Mentoring: In order to get things done, sometimes a manager must become a mentor, offering guidance or training where it’s needed.

Why Leadership and Management Skills are Both Important

From the description of both leaders and managers, it’s clear that project managers must be a blend of both disciplines. Managing a project requires leadership skills to inspire your team and have a vision to lead the project to success.

But there are also many managerial aspects to project management, which are outside the purview of leadership. For example, balancing a budget, creating feasible schedules and contracting with vendors and outside contractors.

A project manager can be thought of as wearing many hats. The best know this and shift from leaders to managers many times during the day, doing what it takes to move the project forward. By doing this they set an example for the team, which benefits everyone.

How to Lead by Example

If you want to encourage, inspire, motivate and fuel your team, leadership by example is one of the best ways to get buy-in and build trust. What are the practical things people can do to encourage, inspire, motivate and fuel their teams to complete more project tasks.

This leads us to talk about transformational leaders. What transformational leaders have in common are the following traits.

  • Fought for a humanitarian cause
  • Declared an unthinkable goal
  • Maintained integrity
  • Walked the talk
  • Went to bat for people

What to Do

To become such a leader requires action. These are some of the steps you can take to help your team through leading by example.

  • Support the vision/mission of your company.
  • Support your team, such as offering training if needed.
  • Get the facts straight before doing anything.
  • Be early, not just on time, to meetings, etc.
  • Pay attention to details.
  • Always follow-up and follow-through on what you say.

What Not to Do

It’s just as important to point out some things not to do if you’re looking to become an effective leader. These are examples that can stymie progress and undermine your leadership.

  • Don’t brag about your achievements; it’s in bad taste and those accomplishments are never yours alone.
  • Don’t talk about others; it will come back to them and erode loyalty.
  • Don’t take credit then issue blame; the credit is the team’s, but the blame is likely yours. In other words, beware of self-serving bias.

Pro Tip: When leading by example, it’s important that it’s authentic leadership. That means you can’t just put it on like a fashion, but must feel passionate.

5 Inspiring Leadership Quotes

If Thomas Edison was right when he said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” then consider these leadership quotes the one percent. Because sometimes, you just need that little bit of inspiration to get over those humps as a leader in project management.

1. “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” – George S. Patton

George S. Patton was a general, which is a job you don’t get unless you’ve proven your leadership skills. He was responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers during WWII. If his leadership faltered, more than just a project was at risk. He understood that once you have assembled a crack team of experts and provided the right tools for the job, just give them goals and let them get there. That’s what they’re trained to do.

2. “Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down.” – Charles F. Kettering

Inventor, engineer and head of research at General Motors for decades, Kettering was responsible for innovations such as the electrical starting motor and leaded gasoline. He’s a bit long-winded here, but he wasn’t a writer. The gist of it is that you should never give up. It’s in the work where solutions are revealed.

3. “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” – Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely founded the shapewear company Spanx. She understands that not knowing something isn’t ignorance if you’re willing to learn. While you might not approach the subject in the traditional sense, that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it could be good. You can discover new solutions others never thought of because they were too wedded to doing things a certain way.

4. “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you” – Walt Disney

You might not expect the man who came up with Mickey Mouse and the happiest place on earth to choose such violent imagery. But it’s only a metaphor for failure, which is part of any creative process, and often just the sobering event needed to recalibrate and continue to succeed.

5. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

While most managers are not likely to face the moral and ethical issues that Martin Luther King, Jr. faced in his battles for civil rights, the sentiment he shares is relatable. You don’t judge a leader when things are running smoothly. Anyone can lead a project when it’s running like clockwork; it’s when the problems come that the real leaders show themselves.

Good leadership is supported by many things, from teams to tools. Once you know how to lead and manage a project, you’ve assembled a great team, then it’s time to get great tools to help them and you. ProjectManager is a project management software that has the features you need: a real-time dashboard, online Gantt charts and tools to foster collaboration. Make a leadership decision today and try it for free with this 30-day trial.

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