Looking for project management templates?
(This post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission if you go on to buy a product through one of the links here, but it does not cost you extra. Thanks for your support! Read my full disclosure.)

What Makes a Brilliant Project Leader?

Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton

What makes a brilliant project leader? I spoke to Dr. Mike Clayton, author of Brilliant Project Leader, and the brains behind We talked 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. The three things project leaders need are:

1. The four essentials

The first part of my book sets out the four essentials of team leadership, and a great 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. Read more about the four essentials of project team leadership.

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 LeaderThat’s a lot to ask! How is management different from leadership?

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.

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. You can lead across cultures on a project team too, once you know how to do it.

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

Watch Mike talk about transformational leadership in this short video. Can’t see the video? Watch it on YouTube.

Get the Fast Start Program project management training, and accelerate your way to project management success!
Try out OnlinePMCourses for free with a short taster course. Get the Project Management Fundamentals short course free (it’s aimed at complete beginners but it will give you an idea of the teaching style and quality of the other courses). You can read my review of OnlinePMCourses here.

Project Management Fundamentals Free Course

Dr. Mike Clayton is an author and speaker specialising in project and change management, leadership, influence, and risk. He runs an online project management school called (You can read my review of OnlinePMCourses here). He is the author of , Brilliant Project Leader, and . You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeClayton01.


Let me into the Resource Library!

Get access to over 20 project management templates, ebooks, checklists and more. The secret password is in your confirmation email!

You can read my privacy policy here.

On the next screen you'll also have the option to subscribe to the newsletter with weekly(ish) project management tips. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


The Shop

Check out my ebooks, template packs and other resources to help you get started and keep going on your projects
Shop now