Project Management's Tie To Strong Leadership

AUG 11, 2014

...Recognition of a Unique Relationship...

Exceptional leadership is a noble quality to strive for and it is typically the most stated attribute when discussing a successful CEO, executive, board member or entrepreneur. Is leadership something you are born with or something you cultivate? I have come to the conclusion that both are possible. However, there is a unique correlation of a foundational concept supporting great leadership which can literally be the difference between a highly effective leader and one who simply has a lofty title. I speak of the implausible, yet powerful, relationship between formal ‘project management’ and truly effective ‘leadership’ as well as successful 'entrepreneurship.' Over the years I have linked many disparate concepts together, but this is one that I consistently observe to be extremely valuable for those who buy into its foundational structure. Join the foundational skillsets of project management to either and you have a powerful union.

A critical aspect of leadership includes creating a clear vision and a logical path on how to successfully get there.

When encountered with a challenge, you will frequently hear people state, “I don’t even know where to start.” Such helpless words. Somewhat deplorable in a professional setting. I personally have never heard these words uttered from the mouth of a successful and seasoned project manager. They may not have an immediate answer to a problem, but they are always able to quickly create a clear path and initiate the process of leading through it. This is due to the fact that the core disciplines of project management create a foundational and repeatable structure on which to build a logical path, gain support, make headway, measure progress, and succinctly correct course if needed. Additionally, creating a path having a clear beginning and a clear endpoint (the definition of a project) is a foundational concept in keeping teams focused, motivated and engaged. Collectively, these are key disciplines to successful leadership hiding in plain sight under the guise of project management.

Above and beyond the key disciplines of project management, it is important to also understand the main traits of successful project/program managers:

1. Ability to differentiate strategic vs. tactical
2. Ability to create appropriate plans
3. Excellent communicator
4. Makes a real effort to listen
5. Possesses an organizational mindset
6. Exudes an inspirational attitude
7. Is charismatic and motivational
8. Ability to efficiently delegate
9. Creates a team atmosphere
10. Remains calm in stressful situations
11. Demonstrates above-average time management skills

At this point, you likely already realize some of the obvious links to effective leadership. Quite simply, formal project management fosters thinking in a logical chronology of events. It actually makes you more logical, even in complex situations. After all, you would not implement a project without first assessing a detailed plan. You would not attempt to finalize an approach without assessing major risks. These concepts can be effectively applied to problem solving, guiding teams, creating strategic company plans and even writing and delivering meaningful speeches. You will start to lead through challenges in a phased approach without a second thought. You will communicate in a way that follows a logical chronology of events that is easy for others to follow and support. It essentially becomes your ‘go to’ path. When applied holistically it can create a repeatable and solid leadership roadmap for CEOs, executives and board members.

Entrepreneurs can also find much value to learning and applying project management skillsets. A detailed poll conducted to evaluate key traits of entrepreneurs and subsequently published in the Harvard Business Review came back with results that likely did not surprise anyone. Above-average ratings for entrepreneurs included persuasion, leadership, personal accountability, goal orientation and interpersonal skills (source ref. 1) - all great qualities to have. Below-average ratings included analytical problem solving, empathy, planning, organizing and self-management (source ref. 1). These below-average traits, as you might imagine, are quite important and needed to ensure overall success. Due to these traits not residing in most entrepreneur’s psyche, I would argue that they could be somewhat remediated, if not cured, through the infusion of project management skillsets and processes. Have a problem with analytical problem solving? Learn how to create plans that systematically work through important areas and highlight areas that you need to leverage outside expertise (learn integration management, improve organizational skills - #2 and #5 above). Lack empathy? You likely need to become a better communicator and also a better listener. When you understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, it becomes easier to interact with them (source ref. 2) (#3 and #4 above). Terrible at self-management? Learn to quickly identify where you should be spending your time and also evaluating areas you need to delegate or outsource (see #1, #2, #8 and #11 above). You can effectively cherry-pick the areas of project management from the holistic training to fill the voids in your professional expertise.

Project Management and a ‘Career Threshold’

Most successful leaders can pinpoint a time in their life when a specific opportunity catapulted their career to another level. Typically this next level can be the defining moment that focused them on a specific direction of their path for the remainder of their career. I like to call this event a ‘Career Threshold’ and many times it is not realized as such until a later time. For me, this Career Threshold occurred at the point I had become a seasoned and professional project/program manager. This was mainly due to the realization that the disciplines of project management were more than just a collection of processes and skillsets used to run a project, but an extremely effective platform for logical thought process both in a professional and personal setting. The leadership opportunities from that point forward were many and the confidence those experiences built were invaluable. I have had the privilege of sharing this concept multiple times as a guest lecturer at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering for their ‘Information Technology Project Management’ course through my lecture entitled ‘Project Management Disciplines: Ties to Effective Leadership and Entrepreneurialism.’ In my opinion, the importance for students to understand how project management can permeate all future endeavors is paramount in forging successful careers. I would even recommend that project management training should be mandatory for most college degrees due to its powerful ability to form logical approaches and create clear paths for those who leverage it.

Own the strategic projects in your environment and you own the organization

Further to the point of staying close to the disciplines of project management, many successful leaders have learned that if you "own the strategic projects in your environment, you own the organization." This is due to the need of organizations to compartmentalize important initiatives into a formal project in an effort to exert governance, gain insight into progress and also guarantee delivery. Weak leaders shy away from project ownership and what they view as inherent risks in the responsibilities of owning large projects or program offices within their organizations. This is a mistake. I have personally found that there is no better way to create strong internal relationships, be viewed as a successful leader and be considered for meaningful opportunities and promotions than to embrace projects, as well as project management, within your organization. Additionally, leaders with relevant project management experience will almost always be considered for important and strategic projects to be housed within their jurisdiction.

If you are looking for a guaranteed way to enhance your strategic approach and ensure success in your professional endeavors, formal project management could be just the platform to help you climb the ladder.

For a free 30 minute session focused on:

  - How to build an impactful project/program office in your organization,
  - Tips on how to identify successful project/program managers for your organization,
  - Suggestions on project management software, training and tools that fit your organization

Schedule your free session via email (

Mark A. Pfister
Chairman & CEO
Integral Board Group

About the Author: In addition to board leadership, Mark A. Pfister is an expert project/program manager and frequently consults on global projects in their initiation phases as well as programs that require remedial focus to bring them back on track. He has also built numerous successful and long-lasting program and project offices across multiple industry verticals.

Pictured: Mark A. Pfister at Harvard Business School's "Making Corporate Boards More Effective" Program on July 26, 2014

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1 Source Ref.: Harvard Business Review - Bill Bonnstetter, Target Training International 04/01/2013
2 Source Ref.: Empathy - Daniel Wendler, 2014