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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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