The Importance of Leadership in Project Management

Written by lewsauder

April 8, 2015

Importance of Leadership in Project Management

The Importance of Leadership in Project Management

He managed his project like it was a finely tuned machine. One in which he could manipulate any aspect he wished with the turn of a gear or the press of a button.

The problem was that it was not a machine, finely tuned or not. It was an organism. A living thing. It breathed as much as the people who served on it.

He didn’t see it. He wanted to know estimate to complete and percentage complete. He tracked statistics and reported metrics. He believed that numbers provided the answer to any question that came up.

It was strictly a science to him.

The Art & Science of Project Management

The reality is that, while many aspects of a project are managed – and need to be managed – leadership is also required. Statistics can show trends. But people are a big piece of a project.

When people are involved, they work better being led than by being manipulated. Members of a project team are human beings with human feelings. They need a leader to motivate them. A leader should praise their successes and encourage them in failure.

The project’s business stakeholders will ask for additional functionality when the scope of a project has already been agreed upon. A rigid, scientific project manager will hold his ground and block any attempt at modifying scope. A leader works with the business stakeholders. If a change is requested, he determines the impact it would have on the project. He communicates it to the business side and works with them to come to a decision that works best for the sponsorship of the project.

When the steering committee requests information on the status of the project, a scientific project manager delivers statistics on earned value or a cost performance index. The steering committee may or may not fully understand the data, but will assume things are fine as long as the graph line is moving in a particular direction.

A leader will answer the question in terms that people can understand. Statistics and metrics may tell part of the story. But the leader has the ability to tell the back story. He can tell them whether the project is behind, why it is behind, and what is being done to bring it back on track.

Checklists vs. Process

Many project managers prefer to manage by checklist and process. Checklists come in handy to help a project manager remember the many details that need to be addressed in a given day or throughout the project.

But like a power-nailer used to build a house, a checklist is one of many tools used to manage a project. It is common for project managers to allow the checklist to drive management of the project. Checked off tasks indicate progress. The more items checked off, the more progress is made.

In reality, activities and responsibilities come up that are not on the checklist. A leader recognizes the additional events and determines how to reprioritize things to allow for the completion of important tasks.

Project managers often like to institute process. If a set of rules can be established for every situation, the project team will always know what to do without the burden of too much thought.

Like checklists and power-nailers, process is a tool. It should be used on a project when applicable. It should not replace allowing the members of the team to think and make decisions for themselves.

Good people should be hired that are smart enough and capable enough to make decisions on their own. If a team member has to follow process or escalate a decision to a manager whenever a situation occurs, the project is affected negatively. Productivity will be reduced, morale will decline, and the likelihood of project success is diminished.


One of the most noticeable influences that leadership has on a project is its impact on productivity. When a project manager sets manipulative management practices aside and focuses on leadership skills, productivity wins.

We already discussed the impact that allowing project team members to make decisions has on productivity. A leader also creates incentives for team members to complete tasks. Instead of ordering, coercing, and threatening team members to complete their tasks “or else,” a leader collaborates with the team to help them complete their tasks.

Instead of providing snippets of tasks with information on a need to know basis, a leader creates a vision of the project. The leader helps the team to visualize successful completion. He makes each team member a stakeholder with a vested interest in the success of the project.


While a project manager who focuses on management is merely a conduit to information, a leader creates relationships. Leaders provide as much information as managers. But the leader also takes the time to develop relationships with every stakeholder on the project. This creates a bond of trust that the manager may never know.

The leader works as a collaborator with the project team members. When a team member faces an obstacle, the leader gets involved to help remove it. The leader is not necessarily the team member’s friend. But he is a trusted member of the team that each team member knows will support the team when support is needed.

The leader develops relationships with the business stakeholders as well. The business team knows that the leader project manager will provide honest visibility. If the project is behind, the leader is transparent about it. When the leader is trusted, the business knows he is telling them the truth, rather than what they want to hear.

The leader as coach and mentor

The leader has more than just completion of the project in mind. A leader takes an interest in the personal development of each team member. He meets with them regularly in one-on-one sessions to make sure that they are growing and learning on the project.

The leader knows that they may work on projects together again in the future. He knows that if they are dissatisfied and not growing, they can easily move on to a job that will provide greater fulfillment.

The leader will mentor each individual team member in a way that is customized for each person’s ability to learn. Project success is based partially on each team member growing throughout the duration of the project.

Decision making

The managing project manager makes decisions based on metrics, politics, and how it will affect the project budget and deadline. The leader always has those factors in mind, but also considers how the decision will affect other stakeholders and aspects of the project.

If a decision will affect morale, that will be taken into account. If the decision causes changes that will affect the business, they will be considered as well.

The leader project manager knows when it is appropriate to make a decision on his own and when to include others. He knows when the business needs to be involved so that they have buy-in. He knows to collaborate with the team members so that they feel that they are part of the decision.

The leader is more interested in getting the right decision than being the one to make the decision.


Perhaps one of the most contrasting characteristics between the manager and the leader is creativity. A manager sees decision making as largely black and white. Most decisions are “no brainers” because they are largely based on budget and timeline.

The leader looks at things a little more creatively. Instead of rushing to the earliest and easiest decision, the leader considers many options. The leader looks for win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum.

The leader will collaborate in an attempt to negotiate an agreeable solution rather than force a practical decision focused only on his own project objectives.


Probably the most salient skill that makes a leader more successful than a manager is his ability to communicate. The way a project manager writes an email, delivers a status report, facilitates a meeting, and makes a request, are all components of good communication.

If a leader can convey an idea to someone that didn’t understand it before, that is good communication. If a project manager can call a group together for a meeting and lead them in sync to identify and resolve an issue, that is a good communicator.

A strong leader has the ability to communicate in a clear and succinct manner. When a project manager has a one-on-one conversation with someone, he makes eye contact, puts all devices and other distractions aside, and gives that person his full attention.

Listening is often the forgotten communication skill. People are judged on their communication skills based on what is coming out. But the way they listen and process what other people communicate is a critical aspect of communication.


Project management is a difficult job. There is a myriad of small details to coordinate, budget considerations, and deadlines to meet. It is easy to fall into the rut of focusing on the scientific aspects to meet all of the tangible goals. But the project manager that understands the importance of leadership in project management produces more successful projects and more successful people in the long run.

How well do you focus on the importance of leadership in project management?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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