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The Essential Hallmarks of a Project Leader

Project Leadership


What makes a good project manager? What makes a great project leader?

In this guest post, Martin Webster shares what he believes are four essential hallmarks of a project leader, and introduces some critical skills, thinking and behaviours for leading projects.

By and large it is our failures that civilise us. Our successes merely confirm our bad habits. – Clive James

Now, before I begin, I think it is important to characterise the project leader and project manager.


Because change is the province of leadership and projects are a means of change.

Managing business change is tough. It’s tough because change is about people. Some people will support the project manager whereas others will actively sabotage your endeavours.

Inevitably things won’t go to plan and tensions will rise. People start to question outcomes or behave unpredictably. Barriers go up and people pass blame. The only certainty is no one can be relied upon to keep their integrity.

This is the territory in which the project manager operates. And, it is the project manager who has to hold things together and negotiate through the conflict.

This calls for leadership. While good planning and a good project schedule help, it is project leadership that creates the right conditions for success.

So, let’s take a look at four essential hallmarks of the project leader.

1. The Art and Practise of Learning

Do you learn? And, I don’t mean, do you learn from mistakes? Although I agree this is important.

No, I’m asking: are you open to continually learning more?

The first essential hallmark of the project leader is learning to learn. Or, as Peter Senge puts it: “[learning] whatever we need to learn in order to achieve the results we truly desire.”

But, what does this mean? And why is this important?

The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic. – Peter Drucker

Let me explain …

The world is rapidly changing. What we learn from first hand experience is not enough. Neither is second-hand learning!

Yet many people continue to do the same old thing. They jump in headfirst thinking they’ve seen or done it before.

But they haven’t! Life just isn’t that simple.

The project leader must learn from their experiences. Simply learning their experiences does not help.

2. Balancing Stakeholder Expectations

Project leaders invest in relationships.

This means the project manager knows how to convey information to keep the project on track, and how to receive information whether good or bad.

To keep stakeholders in balance the project leader adopts effective communication strategies to:

  1. raise or lower stakeholder expectations, and
  2. relay crucial information or instructions to keep the project on track.

What’s more, the project leader will actively receive back information to stay in control. Information, not data, is key to success. Progress reports have their use, but they are always open to interpretation.

Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. – Al Green

Communication has to be thought out. This means asking the right questions:

  • What are my [sponsor’s | stakeholder’s | team’s] priorities?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What makes them sad?
  • And, what raises their spirits?

To answer these questions, the project leader invests in relationships. The project leader connects with his stakeholders … learning how to listen and to appreciate others.

Similarly, when seeking out information, the project leader asks:

  • How will I know I am making progress?
  • Who is the best person to say it is true?
  • How do I get them to tell me?
  • And, how do I earn their trust?


3. Planning and Coordinating Change

Planning and coordinating projects has little to do with processes — managing risk, project planning and scheduling, and so on — and so much more to do with awareness and communication.

Projects are about delivering change, and when we want people to change, sending out rational messages is not enough.

People are emotional beings. Seeing is believing.

So, to plan and coordinate change, the project manager must be seen to lead.

Resistance is thought transformed into feeling. Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance. – Robert Conklin

In fact, there is no greater motivation than the project leader who is leading by example.

Preparing people for change calls for good communication and setting the right example. Make the things you want to see in others part of your daily routine.

Only then will people see and believe why change is needed.

4. Leading People

So, the fourth essential hallmark is leading people.

Projects succeed — or fail — for a variety of reasons. But they are most likely to be successful when those central to change work together as a team.

You may be gifted with the best people, but that won’t guarantee success. Indeed the best people may not perform as well as those with different abilities when there is little team cohesion.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. – Victor Frankl

The project leaders task is to lead people with a common goal, and to acknowledge that every success depends on the achievement of others.

So, the project leader is responsible for creating team unity. To bring together a group of highly talented people and make change happen.

It is not enough to simply manage a cross-functional team. You must lead from the front, and bring together the four essential hallmarks of the project leader.

That is, learn to learn, invest in relationships, communicate with passion and understanding, and be seen to lead.

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About Martin Webster

Martin Webster is managing solution architect for a large UK public sector organisation and has more than 20 years’ experience in project delivery and business change. He works with senior people to solve complex business problems. Martin also writes regularly about project management, leadership teams and business change. Click Here to be notified when he writes a new article.

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