What makes a brilliant project leader?

Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton

What makes a brilliant project leader? I spoke to Mike Clayton, author of Brilliant Project Leader, about the key skills and talents of people who make excellent project leaders. This is what he had to say.

Mike, let’s get straight to it. What makes a brilliant project leader?

There are so many things that contribute to a brilliant project leader, so let me focus on three things. In doing so, I am of course taking as read that a brilliant project leader will have solid project management expertise and be able to plan and deliver their projects with confidence and assurance.

  1. The four essentials
    The first part of my book sets out the four essentials of team leadership, and a brilliant project leader must constantly address each of these and keep them in balance: focus on individuals, build and share a clear plan, foster a true sense of team spirit, and communicate relentlessly – and well.
  2. Resilience
    Thinking back to the time, as a project leader, when I most conspicuously failed, it was not about how I led my team, nor how I managed and delivered my project: it was how I coped personally, when, under pressure, I allowed myself to get too tired, to emotionally involved and to therefore lose all perspective.You must invest in your own resilience, to be able to handle the tough times and stay tough yourself.
  3. Integrity
    It is all nothing without integrity. It is all show and fakery. Integrity is about being the leader you present yourself as; it is about making the right decisions and standing by them, even when the consequences are challenging; and it is about being decent, respectful and honest with the people you need to deal with: your team, your suppliers and your stakeholders, even when you deprecate their stance or their actions.Let’s face it, if you could follow someone, wouldn’t you willingly commit yourself to someone who consistently showed that kind of integrity?

Brilliant Project LeaderOK, so that’s focus on individuals, build and share a plan, build team spirit, communicate, be resilient, act with integrity and be a great project manager as well. That’s a lot to ask but I think many project managers strive to do this anyway. How does a manager differ from a leader?

At the start of Brilliant Project Leader, I use the example of two buses that you could choose to get on, the Yellow Bus and the Purple Bus.

The Yellow Bus: People have to get onto the yellow bus to get where they have to go.  It is well-maintained and safely driven. If it breaks down on the way, the driver knows what to do.

The Purple Bus: People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. They enjoy the journey and find it stimulating. They trust the driver and, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help.

Which would you choose?  For me, the yellow bus driver is an able manager: the purple bus driver is a leader. To summarise, a project manager creates a project plan for what how and when to do things and directs actions. They communicate the project plan and focus on processes, systems and procedures like an effective monitor and control cycle. People do what a project manager asks, because it is their job to.

A project leader creates a vision and strategy, and inspires people to act, painting a vision of the future.  Then they focus on people, their commitment and their ideas. They are prepared to innovate and make courageous decisions that challenge the boundaries. People do what a project leader asks, because they want to.

Purple bus for me, all the way. But like many project managers, I want my team to arrive at their destination safely. Can project managers be both? At the same time?

Absolutely.  Let’s look at it both ways round.

The Project Leader as Project Manager

Your role is to lead the project and you are fortunate enough to have a project manager working with you to manage the day-to-day planning and delivery aspects. Your function is therefore to focus on the leadership aspects – perhaps on stakeholder management and governance. If you do not have sufficient credibility as an experienced project manager, you will be dependent upon the lead of your project manager to fit your work in with their project plans. What kind of leadership is this?

The Project Manager as Project Leader

Can you manage a project effectively without leading your people? I would argue ‘no’. For me, leadership is a fundamental component of management, whether in an operational or project role. It is inconceivable to me that a manger can be successful without leading their people: inspiring them, motivating them guiding them and winning their trust and confidence.

So we can all be leaders on our projects, whatever the level we work at. Thanks, Mike!


Mike Clayton is an author and speaker specialising in project and change management, leadership, influence, and risk. He is the author of Risk Happens, Brilliant Project Leader and Smart to Wise. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeClayton01 and find him online at his blog, Shift Happens.

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