Becoming a Better Project Leader

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Project Managers are often trained on PMI processes, but left to fend for themselves when it comes to leadership skills. Our consulting Director, Paul Spencer, knows this all too well – it happened to him. In this article, Paul provides what he wishes he had at the start of his career – a framework for turning Project Managers into Project Leaders.  You can find out more about Paul on our “Our Resume” page, and you can contact him at

Becoming a Better Project Leader

By Paul Spencer, PMP

“You manage things; you lead people.” – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

In the early stages of my project management career, my employer trained me thoroughly in the PMBOK® fundamentals: risk management, quality management, managing the scope-schedule-budget triangle, and all the rest of the PMI repertoire.  Mastering those techniques gave me a sound toolkit for project management mechanics, but it didn’t give me the one thing I needed to succeed as a PM.  What I needed was a different kind of toolkit – one that would enable me to lead a team.

I’ve heard similar stories from a lot of project managers.  They all know that the people side of project management is just as important as the mechanics (if not more so), but they’ve been left to figure out how to do it for themselves.  Many PMs are frustrated because they know they’re not getting the best out of their team.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research and experimentation on project team leadership.  What I’ve found is that to build an exceptional project team, you need to do three things: engage them, enable them, and energize them.  A detailed explanation of how to do it would fill a book or two, but here are some practical ways to get started now:


If you want your team to be committed, they need to know they’re part of a larger purpose.  Show them how they contribute to the larger vision, and give them the opportunity to grow.

  • Share the project’s vision and business goals, and show them how their job contributes to achieving these goals.  Your team wants to know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
  • Give them the opportunity to learn and grow in the workplace.  Nothing engages someone as deeply as a sense of excitement about their future.
  • Make sure they have peers they view as capable, like-minded, and committed.  Being part of a great team lifts everyone up.


Your team won’t bring their best unless they have what they need to succeed.  It takes more than just handing out laptops to create an environment of possibility.

  • Hold yourself accountable for giving your team the tools, resources, and training to succeed.  The training piece is especially important, particularly if you’re asking people to do things they haven’t done before.
  • Make sure everyone understands their objectives, expectations, and priorities.  Projects can be chaotic and stressful.  You can enable your team to navigate that chaos and stress by helping them to understand what’s important, and what can be put aside.
  • Give them high levels of autonomy, and the opportunity to do what they do best every day.  These might seem like two different things, but they’re closely related.  People get great fulfillment from applying their talents to achieving a goal.  The combination of autonomy and mastery is a powerful motivator.


Projects can be very demanding.  Take care of your team, and help them be part of an environment that supports maintaining a high energy level.

  • Make sure people are acknowledged and appreciated for their contributions.  This one is obvious, but it’s still important.  Think about it from the opposite side.  Nothing is more deflating than working hard to do something great, then not being recognized for it.
  • Help them maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life.  Recognize your project’s cadence.  Give people a break when the pressure is off, and they’ll be ready to commit when the heat is on.
  • Do what you can to earn their trust and respect.  Act with integrity, and don’t be afraid to do the hard things when the need arises.

Take the time to consider your current project team and how it stacks up against each point.  Sit down with your key players and brainstorm how to build more of the drivers into the team’s daily working life.  Then monitor your progress going forward.  If something isn’t working, empower the team to adjust the approach.  You’ll get better performance, and everyone will be a lot happier along the way.

At Positive Disruption, we have developed a one-day training class that teaches Project Managers how to implement this framework in their teams. Contact us today to schedule our class for your business.

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