Project Management Articles

Leadership and Project Management

by Di Ellis

One of the more interesting questions I am often asked about project management is: do I need leadership skills to be an effective project manager? And I use the word "effective" carefully, because, to me, all effective project managers have strong leadership skills.

That's not to say you can't become a project manager with poor leadership skills, but you are unlikely to become an effective project manager.

So what is leadership, and can you teach yourself these skills?

One of the most insightful descriptions of leadership I have read was given to the student-officers at a Training Camp at Fort Sheridan, by Major C. A. Bach during World War One. These men were about to be commissioned and sent to the front in France. Excerpts of his talk follow:

"In a short time each of you men will control the lives of a certain number of other men.….When you join your organization you will find there a willing body of men who ask from you nothing more than the qualities that will command their respect, their loyalty and their obedience.

They are perfectly ready and eager to follow you so long as you can convince them that you have these qualities. When the time comes that they are satisfied you do not possess them you might as well kiss yourself good-bye. Your usefulness in that organization is at an end.

In a few days the great mass of you men will receive commissions as officers. These commissions will not make you leaders; they will merely make you officers. They will place you in a position where you can become leaders if you possess the proper attributes."

In much the same way, having the title "Project Manager" does not make you a project manager, nor a leader of that project.

"But you must make good, not so much with the men over you as with the men under you."

I despair when I see Project Managers who focus all their efforts and communication to senior management and the executives of a company, rather than working with their team to achieve the project objectives. Especially if they are brought into an established project team – an effective project manager spends more time with the team than with the "brass".

"Men must and will follow into battle officers who are not leaders, but the driving power behind these men is not enthusiasm but discipline. They go with doubt and trembling that prompts the unspoken question, "What will he do next?" Such men obey the letter of their orders but no more. Of devotion to their commander, of exalted enthusiasm which scorns personal risk, of self-sacrifice to insure his personal safety, they know nothing. Their legs carry them forward because their brain and their training tell them they must go. Their spirit does not go with them.

Great results are not achieved by cold, passive, unresponsive soldiers. They don't go very far and they stop as soon as they can. Leadership not only demands but receives the willing, unhesitating, unfaltering obedience and loyalty of other men;  and a devotion that will cause them, when the time comes, to follow their uncrowned king to hell and back again, if necessary."

If you have ever worked on a project that has faced a crisis, this will ring especially true. Only a cohesive project team with a strong leader will do whatever it is that needs to be done to "fight through" a crisis and emerge successful. Projects with weak project managers, those who care only for themselves, will surely fail.

"You will ask yourselves: Of just what, then, does leadership consist? What must I do to become a leader? What are the attributes of leadership, and how can I cultivate them?

Leadership is a composite of a number of qualities. Among the most important I would list Self-confidence, Moral Ascendency, Self-Sacrifice, Paternalism, Fairness, Initiative, Decision, Dignity, and Courage.

Self-confidence results, first, from exact knowledge; second, the ability to impart that knowledge …… to lead, you must know!  You may bluff all of your men some of the time, but you can't do it all the time. Men will not have confidence in an officer unless he knows his business, and he must know it from the ground up. ….. And not only should each officer know thoroughly the duties of his own grade, but he should study those of the two grades next above him."

Whilst in Project Management I do not necessarily believe that the Project Manager must know, in detail, how to do every role on the project, it is important that the project team respect the skills and knowledge of the project manager.

Have you ever worked on a project where the Project Manager is clearly out of their depth? Any project where the team has no respect for the project manager (be that their skills or just in general), trouble will surely follow.

"While self-confidence is the result of knowing more than your men, Moral Ascendency over them is based upon your belief that you are the better man. To gain and maintain this ascendency you must have self-control, physical vitality, and endurance and moral force. You must have yourself so well in hand that, even though in battle you may be scared stiff, you will never show fear. For if by so much as a hurried movement or a trembling of the hands, or a change of expression, or a hasty order hastily revoked, you indicate your mental condition it will be reflected in your men in a far greater degree.

In garrison or camp many instances will arise to try your temper and wreck the sweetness of your disposition. If at such times you "fly off the handle" you have no business to be in charge of men. For men in anger say and do things that they almost invariably regret afterward.

Be an example to your men!"

By definition, a project manager should be someone who is good at controlling, not just tasks, but other people and themselves. And what better way to show behaviors and attitudes that are acceptable to your team than to demonstrate these yourself.

"Self-sacrifice is essential to leadership. You will give, give, all the time. You will give of yourself physically; for the longest hours, the hardest work and the greatest responsibility are the lot of the captain.

You will give of yourself mentally, in sympathy and appreciation for the troubles of men in your charge. This one's mother has died, and that one has lost all his savings in a bank failure. They may desire help, but more than anything else they desire sympathy. Don't make the mistake of turning such men down with the statement that you have troubles of your own, for every time you do that you knock a stone out of the foundation of your house."

An effective project manager is not only focused on the task, but also on the individuals within the project team. Only a team can succeed, and the project manager's role is to ensure that the project team is functioning effectively. This means taking an interest in the people within the team.

"When I say that paternalism is essential to leadership I use the term in its better sense. I do not now refer to that form of paternalism which robs men of initiative, self-reliance and self-respect. I refer to the paternalism that manifests itself in a watchful care for the comfort and welfare of those in your charge.

Soldiers are much like children. You must see that they have shelter, food and clothing, the best that your utmost efforts can provide. You must see that they have food to eat before you think of your own; that they have each as good a bed as can be provided before you consider where you will sleep. You must be far more solicitous of their comfort than of your own. You must look after their health. You must conserve their strength by not demanding needless exertion or useless labor.

And by doing all these things you are breathing life into what would be otherwise a mere machine. You are creating a soul in your organization that will make the mass respond to you as though it were one man. And that is esprit."

Taking an interest in the people on your project is not a weakness, and it's not the preserve of women project managers. Displaying genuine respect for the people in your team will repay itself in kind, over and over again.

"You cannot treat all men alike!  A punishment that would be dismissed by one man with a shrug of the shoulders is mental anguish for another. A company commander who, for a given offense, has a standard punishment that applies to all is either too indolent or too stupid to study the personality of his men. In his case justice is certainly blind.

Study your men as carefully as a surgeon studies a difficult case. And when you are sure of your diagnosis apply the remedy. And remember that you apply the remedy to effect a cure, not merely to see the victim squirm. It may be necessary to cut deep, but when you are satisfied as to your diagnosis don't be diverted from your purpose by any false sympathy for the patient."

It is as important to follow up poor performance or behavior as it is to follow up great performance or behavior with your team members. But any follow up for poor performance has to focus on the task and behaviors, not the person. If you counsel someone regarding improvements needed in their work, you are actually giving them the opportunity to learn and grow. It should not be seen as distasteful work.

 "Hand in hand with fairness in awarding punishment walks fairness in giving credit. Everybody hates a human hog. When one of your men has accomplished an especially creditable piece of work see that he gets the proper reward. Turn heaven and earth upside down to get it for him. Don't try to take it away from him and hog it for yourself. You may do this and get away with it, but you have lost the respect and loyalty of your men. Sooner or later your brother officers will hear of it and shun you like a leper. In war there is glory enough for all. Give the man under you his due. The man who always takes and never gives is not a leader. He is a parasite."

A true leader is not afraid to share the glory when things go well. Individual recognition for a job well done not only lifts the spirit of the individual so recognized, it lifts the spirits of the whole team, as they know that good effort brings rewards.

"There is another kind of fairness - that which will prevent an officer from abusing the privileges of his rank. When you exact respect from soldiers be sure you treat them with equal respect. Build up their manhood and self-respect. Don't try to pull it down.

Consideration, courtesy and respect from officers toward enlisted men are not incompatible with discipline. They are parts of our discipline. Without initiative and decision no man can expect to lead."

Respect is critical in building an effective, motivated project team. As project manager, you should have the same respect for the skills and knowledge of your most junior member as you do for the project executives.

"In maneuvers you will frequently see, when an emergency arises, certain men calmly give instant orders which later, on analysis, prove to be, if not exactly the right thing, very nearly the right thing to have done. You will see other men in emergency become badly rattled;  their brains refuse to work, or they give a hasty order, revoke it;   give another, revoke that;  in short, show every indication of being in a blue funk.

Regarding the first man you may say: "That man is a genius. He hasn't had time to reason this thing out. He acts intuitively." Forget it!  Genius is merely the capacity for taking infinite pains. The man who was ready is the man who has prepared himself.

He must also have the decision to order the execution and stick to his orders.

Any reasonable order in an emergency is better than no order. The situation is there. Meet it. It is better to do something and do the wrong thing than to hesitate, hunt around for the right thing to do and wind up by doing nothing at all. And, having decided on a line of action, stick to it. Don't vacillate. Men have no confidence in an officer who doesn't know his own mind."

Being able to react coolly in a crisis is a hallmark of an effective project manager, and the one area where I see most people fail. No project will ever run entirely smoothly, it is the crises that make the manager.

"You must frequently act without orders from higher authority. Time will not permit you to wait for them. Here again enters the importance of studying the work of officers above you. If you have a comprehensive grasp of the entire situation and can form an idea of the general plan of your superiors, that and your previous emergency training will enable you to determine that the responsibility is yours and to issue the necessary orders without delay.

And then I would mention courage. Moral courage you need as well as mental courage - that kind of moral courage which enables you to adhere without faltering to a determined course of action, which your judgment has indicated is the one best suited to secure the desired results.

You will find many times, especially in action, that, after having issued your orders to do a certain thing, you will be beset by misgivings and doubts; you will see, or think you see, other and better means for accomplishing the object sought. You will be strongly tempted to change your orders. Don't do it ….. every time you change your orders without obvious reason you weaken your authority and impair the confidence of your men. Have the moral courage to stand by your order and see it through."

And this all boils down to self-confidence, and knowing your job.

"Moral courage further demands that you assume the responsibility for your own acts. If your subordinates have loyally carried out your orders and the movement you directed is a failure the failure is yours, not theirs. Yours would have been the honor had it been successful. Take the blame if it results in disaster. Don't try to shift it to a subordinate and make him the goat. That is a cowardly act. "

Accountability, both personal and for the overall project, is critical. Even when a failure on the project is caused by a member of the team, the Project Manager is accountable, as they are in control of the team.

"Furthermore, you will need moral courage to determine the fate of those under you. You will frequently be called upon for recommendations for promotion or demotion of officers and non-commissioned officers in your immediate command.

Courage is more than bravery. Bravery is fearlessness -  the absence of fear. The merest dolt may be brave, because he lacks the mentality to appreciate his danger; he doesn't know enough to be afraid.

Courage, however, is that firmness of spirit, that moral backbone which, while fully appreciating the danger involved, nevertheless goes on with the undertaking. Bravery is physical;  courage is mental and moral. You may be cold all over; your hands may tremble; your legs may quake; your knees be ready to give way - that is fear. If, nevertheless, you go forward;  if, in spite of this physical defection you continue to lead your men against the enemy, you have courage.

The physical manifestations of fear will pass away. …. You must not give way to them."

Whilst we are extremely unlikely, as Project Managers, to ever face the kind of fear these student officers were about to face, there can be times on a project where courage is required to recommend or follow a particular course of action.

"Use judgment in calling on your men for displays of physical courage or bravery. Don't ask any man to go where you would not go yourself. If your common sense tells you that the place is too dangerous for you to venture into, then it is too dangerous for him. You know his life is as valuable to him as yours is to you."

In todays work environment, I draw the parallel with working long hours. We all aspire to a reasonable work life balance; however there will be times on some projects where additional, and sometimes extraordinary, effort is need to meet a particular milestone. Just make sure that your request is not unreasonable, is not something you would not do yourself, and that the project team members are rewarded later for their additional efforts.  

"And, lastly, if you aspire to leadership, I would urge you to study men.

Get under their skins and find out what is inside.

Some men are quite different from what they appear to be on the surface. Determine the workings of their mind.

You cannot know your opponent …….. But you can know your own men. You can study each to determine wherein lies his strength and his weakness; which man can be relied upon to the last gasp and which cannot.

Know your men, know your business, know yourself!"

These fundamentals of leadership are as relevant in today's business as they were in the 1920's when written, and I would commend any aspiring project manager to read this speech in full (see link below).

I'll leave you with a last quote from Napoleon Hill on the link between leadership and initiative.

"And what is Initiative? It is that exceedingly rare quality that prompts - nay, impels - a person to do that which ought to be done without being told to do it. One of the peculiarities of Leadership is the fact that it is never found in those who have not acquired the habit of taking the initiative. Leadership is something that you must invite yourself into; it will never thrust itself upon you."       - Napoleon Hill 1928

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About the Author

Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management.

You can read the Major's speech in full here.

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