Top 5 leadership attributes for project leaders

With increased complexity of modern projects, it is critical for project managers to have certain leadership attributes beyond the technical skills typically ascertained through professional project management training. The top five leadership skills I view to be critical are analytical listening, building and managing relationships, adaptability, systems-thinking, and understanding failure.

Three workers in helmets discussing project

Three workers in helmets discussing project

Analytical Listening

First and foremost, as a project leader it is not enough to be able to understand and analyze the increasingly vast and sophisticated information available. It requires validating data by being ‘on-the-ground’ to see if it matches what you are seeing and hearing.

You need to be curious and listen critically, especially to those who are skeptics. Skeptics serve as the first hint (early warning) of potential issues or problems, help guard against groupthink, and provide leaders with an independent source for additional context in the quest to confirm or refute currently available data and status. This comes with an important caveat – know the difference between a skeptic and a cynic. A cynic is someone who is disparaging for no appreciable reason.

Building and Managing Relationships

Tied directly to analytical listening, project leaders have to proactively manage multiple relationships across the entire spectrum of the project. This means building real working relationships with those on the front lines, partner contractors/vendors/suppliers on the project, sponsors, stakeholders, etc. This is essential in order to turn the pervasive data available now through modern project management information systems into real knowledge.

Without building and managing relationships, which allows communicating in an open, trusting manner, it can be an illusion that you have an actual understanding of the project’s status and you have less of a chance of seeing problems brewing underneath the surface. By building respective relationships, the problems, issues and errors typically faced during the lifecycle of a project will decline.


Adaptability in project management means having project plans but recognizing and managing complexity and uncertainty.  This requires a project organization structure and culture which supports adaptive approaches to change management and decision-making. Two approaches project leaders can take to promote adaptability are:

  • Continuously assess and periodically reflect with a willingness to revise the project plans based on lessons learned and new insights
  • Promote flexibility in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty by migrating problem solving to those closet to the problem versus a centralized command and control decision-making process

Systems Thinking

Simply put, project leaders must know how to solve complex problems. We must know how to pull together disparate thoughts into actionable solutions. Problem solving using systems thinking taking a higher-level, holistic view in order to best understand various competing dynamics and interactions that would typically be hidden if the issue was addressed through analyzing the problem in isolation.

Systems thinking, in my opinion, is not something that has been particularly taught well in project management professional education and certainly a subject that a project leader should consider as part of their self-development.

Understanding Failure

There is an oft-repeated axiom in project management that “Everything needs to work in order for the project to succeed, but a single component failure can cause the entire project to fail”. More than ever, project leaders must understand how things fail in order to design processes for reliability. You have to understand project failure modes and typical communication and functionality issues. You must be willing to probe and ask tough questions until you get the clarity needed.

Being a project leader in today’s complex world requires continuous self-development. I recommend learning attributes such as those listed in order to not only to survive but thrive as a project leader.

Most Leaders are Mindless – Likely including You

Why are Experts prone to Mindlessness?

When people become comfortable with a task, they no longer need to consciously think about doing it. In other words, it becomes a mindless act. For example, if you are an experienced driver, you no longer need to consciously think through all the steps of starting, putting into gear, stepping on the gas pedal and driving an automobile. In fact, you likely can not recall details of most things you passed along the way on a recently driven route. Yet, when it was a novel experience, most people recall in some detail the first time they drove, including whom they were with, what type a car it was, where they drove, etc., even if it was 30+ years ago as in my case.

cheerful and happy young woman in her car showing her new driving license

Why Experts are prone to Mindlessness

Mindlessness, from a professional context, is our tendency to apply our experience to a current situation without fully appreciating other possibilities or perspectives. If the situation is familiar to us based on past experience, training, or successes, we tend to draw conclusions that can blind us to new ways of thinking. Additional causes of mindlessness is our vulnerability to cognitive biases and being distracted, hurried or stressed. In their book concerning their research of High Reliability Organizations (HROs), Weick and Sutliffe (2007) describe mindlessness as:

a style of mental functioning in which people follow recipes, impose old categories to classify what they see, act with some rigidity, operate on automatic pilot, and mislabel unfamiliar new contexts as familiar old ones (p.88).

Switching from Mindless to Mindful

By following recipes, Weick & Sutcliffe mean following plans as-is without thought, understanding, or being creative if circumstances change. By managing mindlessly we ignore subtle clues of disruptions caused by unexpected events, and perhaps more importantly narrowly limit possible solutions. Ellen Langer, a pioneer in the Western-based perspective of Mindfulness, maintains that a cognitive switch in thinking from one of mindlessness to thinking with a heightened state of awareness and involvement and being ‘in the present’ is needed to become mindful.   This requires (Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000):

  • a greater sensitivity to one’s environment
  • more openness to new information
  • the creation of new categories for structuring perception
  • enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving


Mindfulness: East versus West

Silence vs Action

Mindfulness has garnered significant interest in the business world the past couple of years. A recent Harvard Business Review article identified that Mindfulness is being studied and adopted in various organizations to include Google, Apple and the US Department of Defense. This form of Mindfulness capturing great interest the past few years is associated with the Eastern philosophy of Buddhist principles and meditation techniques.

It is important for leaders be knowledgeable, although currently receiving less attention, that there is also a Western philosophy of Mindfulness that is based in Cognitive Science. To summarize using only two words, the Eastern perspective of Mindfulness can be described as enhanced attention, while the western perspective can be viewed as distinction making. Let’s discuss.

Top View of Boot on the trail with the text: Practice Mindfulness


Why Traditional Project Management alone is insufficient


Explaining how complexity and uncertainty necessitated changing military strategy, tactics and leadership, General Stanley McChrystal wrote in his 2015 book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (emphasis mine):

Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for. The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.

I argue that modern complexity is also overwhelming time-honored traditional project management processes.

Concept image representing networking. This image is 3d render.

Short History of Project Management

While managing projects has been around over a millennium (Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, etc.), modern project management emerged in the 1950s as engineering-based quantitative techniques from the field of operational research. Techniques such as PERT, CPM, Work Breakdown Structures, and Earned Value were developed to plan, monitor and control the engineering and production of sophisticated programs within the aerospace and defense industries.

These methodologies remain prevalent and continue to serve as the foundation of project management knowledge and practice.

Project management grew rapidly despite concerns, even in its infancy, of project delays, cost overruns, and outright failures.  In the 1960s various governments commissioned studies to examine embarrassing delays and failures of major public projects. A commonality among the studies was that most failures were the result of difficulties that lay outside of project management methodologies, to include complexity and uncertainty.

Today, most organizations use some form of project management.  This includes more recent adaptations that began to differ from, yet remain complementary to, traditional project management methods. Examples include new product development, program management, partnering, critical chain, supply chain management, agile, lean production, etc. While differing in their functional approaches, these new methods remain firmly embedded in the reductionist approach associated with traditional project management.

Yet, conduct a simple search of the internet and you will find ample illustrations and current examples of continued project cost overruns, schedule delays and failures.

Project Complexity

Traditional project management methods, again, are engineering-based qualitative techniques. They are based on the underlying assumption that everything can be designed, structured and measured, therefore making linear processes appropriate.

However, modern projects are complex. As I discussed in an earlier post concerning complexity:

Sargut and McGrath (2011) published in HBR the now classic article Learning to live with complexity. They identified three properties associated with complexity, which are:

  • multiplicity – the number of potentially interacting elements
  • interdependence – how connected those elements are
  • diversity – degree of their heterogenity

Complexity inevitably advances uncertainty. During conditions of uncertainty it is more appropriate to learn from natural science theory versus engineering solutions. In their book Resilience Thinking (2006) on ecosystems, authors David Salt and Brian Walker describe a typical method of managing which should resonate with most managers:

Our modus operandi is to break things we’re managing down into component parts and understand how each part functions and what inputs will yield the greatest outputs.

They go on to warn, however:

the more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that system’s resilience…making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.

Simply put, you cannot optimize complex projects with set linear processes, no matter how well understood, as the sheer number of diverse, interacting elements with various levels of connectivity makes set processes vulnerable to failure.

To close, I’ll again quote a lesson learned from General McChrystal in his 2015 book Team of Teams:

In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.

I agree General.


Confirmed: Mental Traps to Avoid in Decision Making



An important concept for project leaders to understand are the mental traps (shortcuts) used to cope with the complexity inherent in most decisions. An excellent overview of mental traps is this infographic via Towergate Insurance.

Cognitive Biases

Mental traps

Towergate’s infographic identified 10 mental biases:

  1. Bandwagon: doing something based on those around you
  2. Availability: overuse of most recent or easily attainable information
  3. Dunning-Kruger Effect: unskilled and unaware of it
  4. Framing: reacting differently based on how subject was presented
  5. Confirmation: seeing only what one wants to see
  6. Curse of Knowledge: assuming others know what you do
  7. Reluctance: desire to do the opposite of that being advised
  8. Sunk Cost: remaining committed to that which resources have been invested against best interest moving forward
  9. Hindsight: believing an event could have been predicted
  10. Anchoring Effect: using irrelevant information

I’ll add three additional types of biases to be aware:

  1. Analogy: missing important differences between past and present cases
  2. Vividness: overly influenced by alluring images and opportunities
  3. Instant response: decision making based on emotion, not reason

I believe confirmation bias to be particularly important in project management.


A Complex Project is not Complicated

Is your project complicated or complex?

While the words complicated and complex are often used interchangeably, they have quite different meanings. And that difference has a profound impact on how you should manage your project.

Businessman find a solution to increase profit


An example of something complicated would be to re-assemble all the tiny parts of a Swiss wristwatch. In order to do so, you would require a good instruction manual and proper tools. Even then, you may need a Swiss wristwatch expert to help guide you through some of the assembly process. With patience, however, it is a predictable process and can be done.

In a project context, a complicated project is one that may have many moving parts but has obvious patterns allowing it to be managed in a sequential manner. The processes, while including variables, can be broken into component parts and managed. An example is a hospital moving inpatients and staff to a new site. It can be planned in a sequential manner with external experts hired to help with processes unfamiliar to the organization. Using this example, consulting services might be used to assist with logistics planning.  For projects which are complicated, the linear processes of tradition project management tools and methods works well.


An example of something complex would be raising children. I have two sons, four years difference to the month in age. While I had experience raising my first son by the time my second son was born, I could not have pre-planned repeating the same process of raising my second exactly as I had the first. Raising children often involves in-the-moment decision-making and ‘problem solving’.

It is the same with projects. A complex project is identified by the high level and shear number of interacting variables which impacts decision-making over the course of the project. Sargut and McGrath (2011) published in HBR the now classic article Learning to live with complexity. They identified three properties associated with complexity, which are:

  • multiplicity – the number of potentially interacting elements
  • interdependence – how connected those elements are
  • diversity – degree of their heterogenity


Your definition of ‘project’ can determine its fate

A sequence of activities or a temporary organization?

A project is typically defined as a temporary endeavor consisting of a sequence of activities to create a unique product or service. Traditional project management tools used to manage projects are engineering-based quantitative techniques for planning, monitoring and controlling projects. These analytical methods break down the project into component parts to understand and manage them. The project plans consists of linear processes that are too often managed from the top down. This definition, however, is no longer suffice due to increasingly complex projects.

Complex projects, by their nature, progress non-linearly. The unforeseen and unexpected happen, thwarting the best of planning.

Gantt Chart with Pen on Left

I believe that an alternative definition is needed. I prefer the metaphor of a project as a temporary organization. This concept originated with Scandinavian research studies of projects. It is an organizational theory perspective of managing projects. Instead of controlling projects solely with traditional project management tools, people are taught and encouraged to provide interpretation, sense-making and ingenuity to solve unfamiliar problems. This results in projects being managed with action and learning versus managed principally through control tools using traditional project management methods.

From my 30+ years of major project experience, first with military construction (MILCON) projects and the past 20 years with major (including several $1B+) hospital construction and IT projects, managing projects continues to be based principally on traditional project management methods. To view a project as a temporary organization, however, is not easy as it requires a shift in organizational and leadership mindset of how projects are managed. It requires insisting upon organizational behaviors such as:

  • culture that supports openness and trust
  • collaborative behaviors
  • collective commitment to the project
  • being comfortable with ambiguity
  • real team (versus separate work groups)

I have seen many projects start with great fanfare and talk of teamwork and of being transformational. However, when the unexpected inevitably occurs, usually resulting in schedule delays or cost overruns, the various project members quickly shift from transformational to transactional, relying on formal contract documents as a CYA tactic. Often the blame rests with the project manager or sometimes the entire team. Yet, if the project sponsor had enacted a team culture from the beginning which promoted and incentivized collective sense-making and human ingenuity, the unexpected often becomes apparent sooner as weak signals. This allows for identifying and managing issues quickly before they escalate into major problems.

It begins by defining ‘project’.  Are you managing a sequence of activities or a temporary organization?