Welcome to the third and final project leadership article by Susanne Madsen – an expert project leadership coach. This article series is an extract from Madsen’s award-winning book: The Power of Project Leadership: 7 Keys to Help you Transform from Project Manager to Project Leader. Not that all articles can be read without knowledge of the previous ones.

 The Power of Project Leadership Series

This is an overview of the three project leadership articles, which have the following titles:

  1. Project Leadership: The World is Changing and so Must You 1/3

  2. Project Leadership: The 3 most Fundamental Mistakes Project Managers Make 2/3

  3. Project Leadership: Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership 3/3

Moving towards Project Leadership

Moving away from a purely transactional way of managing projects – where you rely on processes, control, and authority – and towards a leadership approach will help you add more value, navigate the different types of complexity and deliver better projects. It will help you focus on the strategic outlook of the project, create a high-performing team, and build a culture of continuous improvement. It will also help you foster the right set of attitudes, such as honesty, openness, trust, and accountability.

We will discuss the 7 keys in full in Chapter 3, but let’s briefly look at what they are.

Key #1 Be authentic

The first of the 7 keys is to be authentic. This means that you instinctively know what is right and what is wrong and that you lead and make decisions accordingly. It means that you have a strong sense of purpose because you understand your role and how it adds value to your client, your team, and to you. When you are authentic, there is harmony among what you think, feel, say, and do. You have an honest approach to your work and you shy away from playing favorites or engaging in dishonest politics.


READ ALSO: Robin Sharma: Authentic Leadership


Instead, you seek to deliver on your promises, protect your team, and stand up for what you believe is right.

Figure 1.5   The 7 Keys to Project Leadership

Project Leadership From-project management to project leadership

Key #2 Lead with vision

Leading with vision means that you partner with your client and take joint responsibility for delivering the project’s ultimate goals and objectives. You begin with the end in mind and work with your team and client to fully comprehend the project’s strategic objectives and benefits. But you are also concerned with how to achieve these benefits and how to win people over and avoid resistance.

When you lead with vision, you are not just focused on delivering the project’s tangible outputs or capabilities. You are also focused on the benefits that these capabilities provide as well as how your team and the end-users are impacted by them.

Key #3 Improve and innovate

The third key to project leadership is to continuously improve and innovate.

This is about stepping back from the project, observing it from different angles and assessing which parts are working and which are not – and then having the courage to do something about it in collaboration with the team.

When you improve and innovate, you empower people around you to think creatively and to come up with new and better ways of doing things. This is a process that requires courage, energy, and clear sight, as it is much easier to maintain the status quo than to question it and improve upon it.

It requires you to gain the trust and participation of your team and to be willing to take risks and step outside of your comfort zone for the sake of doing the right thing.

Key #4 Empower the team

Your ability to empower the team to deliver its best work is integral to project leadership. The team is the project’s biggest asset, and how well you use this asset will depend on your ability to tap into each person’s strengths and desires.


READ ALSO: What is Delegation in Management and How to do it Effectively?


When I say ‘asset’, I don’t mean something that can be owned, but something that is valuable and worth looking after. To build a high-performing team you have to tune into people, create a safe space, and act as an inspirational mentor and guide. But creating a high-performing team is also about challenging people, addressing poor performance, and establishing clear agreements around what is expected. To do that you will have to make use of both your supportive yin side as well as your challenging yang side.

Key #5 Build trust with stakeholders

Your primary concern as a project leader should be to serve your clients and to help fulfill their strategic objectives – not in the sense that you will take everything they say for gospel, but in that your ultimate goal is to provide them with the products and services that they need. In order to do that you will have to build strong relationships of trust with your customers and get to know their business drivers and objectives intimately. This will enable you to fully partner with them and help deliver the expected benefits.

You will also have to be excellent at keeping your clients informed of progress and at gaining their buy-in and acceptance for solutions and the way forward. This involves the courage to ask for help and guidance when required and the ability to talk openly about risks and issues that need resolving.

Key #6 Use powerful techniques

To step into the project leadership space, it’s important that you understand the most powerful project management techniques and that you know how and when to use them. Projects must be planned before they are executed, and risks, issues, and change requests must be identified and effectively addressed.

Although this may sound obvious, many project managers fall down by not mastering the fundamentals. They also fail to use the tools collaboratively and thereby miss out on the opportunity to fully leverage and engage the team.


READ ALSO: Top 20 Tips to be the Best Project Leader


Mastering this key is also about the ability to produce a solid business case, realistic estimates, key performance indicators, and honest project reporting. This key is not about getting lost in the detail of tools and techniques.

It’s about using the processes that add value; no more and no less.

Key #7 Work with intent

The last of the 7 keys is to work with intent. This means that in order to become an authentic project leader who leads with vision, improves and innovates, empowers the team, builds strong relationships with clients, and uses powerful techniques, you have to be excellent at prioritizing and optimizing your own time.

The trick is to consistently put the important over the urgent and to focus on those aspects that yield the best results. This requires that you overcome procrastination, limit time-waste, reduce multitasking, optimize your energy, and don’t let excuses, fear, stress, or self-doubt get in your way. It also requires you to use delegation as an effective tool to train and grow others, and thereby free yourself up to keep an eye on the bigger picture and on the client.

As you can see, the 7 keys cover the full spectrum of project leadership – from how you lead yourself and others, and how you add value by delivering the project’s strategic outcomes, to how you make the best use of project management techniques.

As you move towards project leadership and begin to implement the 7 keys, you must be willing to take risks and stand up for what you believe is right. You must have the courage to challenge the status quo even when it is not the most popular thing to do. And you must keep your eye on the long term and be brave enough to take a hit today for the sake of tomorrow.

Project leadership is about doing what is right for the project, the team and the client. In that sense, it is a selfless discipline where the purpose is not to enhance your ego or position. Personal success is a positive side benefit of project leadership, not the purpose.


VIDEO: What are the Differences between Project Management and Project Leadership?


Case 1: How to spot a project leader

Sam Fleming, Head of Project Delivery, British Gas Plc

Soft skills are critical in defining project leaders and high-performing individuals.

Key elements are always around people skills, emotional intelligence, calm, non-aggressive ways of handling conflict and negotiations – and ultimately, having the confidence to challenge the status quo and look for the most effective and efficient ways of delivery.

The other critical ability is the propensity to learn and the desire to coach others. Every great leader has this inherent trait, which allows constant progress and higher patterns of thinking. Finally, they must be able to effectively address the human impacts of change (far beyond systems and process) and put themselves in the shoes of customers, employees, executives, and, ultimately, the shareholders to embed change and make it a success at every level.

Case 2: Outstanding project leaders perceive themselves as the project CEO

Arnon Yaffe, Project Leadership Consultant and Coach Outstanding project leaders perceive themselves as the project CEO. They have a high level of self-awareness and are extremely attentive to everyone in the project ecosystem. They are true to their values and lead by example. Outstanding project leaders aim to excel both in interpersonal skills and in professional/technical knowledge of their trade without excusing one trait for the sake of the other. They know that it is a never-ending process of ongoing improvement and will not fall victim to arrogance. They inspire people to excel and perceive themselves as a facilitator for their growth.

Case 3: What differentiates project leaders from the pack is the power of anticipation

Paul Hodgkins, Executive Director, Paul Hodgkins Project Consultancy

Project leaders pay attention to the details, but they don’t live in them.

They see and spot things in a different way from average project managers. They take every opportunity to adapt, observe, and learn from things that went well or wrong, from every conversation they have and every person they meet. They reflect on how they can synthesize this information in the context of their projects and programs and they use it to anticipate the next set of challenges, or how their team or stakeholders may react to a given situation. They are in a constant state of preparedness, and as a result, they are always in control, rather than circumstances controlling them.

This allows them to set the tempo, not respond to it. It allows their team to feel shielded from events when that’s needed or to be at the vanguard of making things happen when that’s called for. Anticipation does not mean that project leaders know everything. Nobody does. But it does mean they know what they don’t know and when to turn to others in the team. Coupling this ability with humility is, in my view, a key project leadership capability.

Project leadership is about having belief and confidence in yourself as a project manager and leader. If you remain authentic and true to yourself, if you can adapt and anticipate, then even if you do get something wrong, you are much more likely to be forgiven. Leadership in projects is about learning from every element and dimension of projects and recognizing that in a given situation or with a given set of challenges, it is not a failure of leadership to know that, at that moment in time, you are not the best person to move things forward. ‘Passing the ball’ to a team member is not giving away responsibility. Taking it and knowing when to make the ‘right pass’ is also an attribute that sets apart project leaders.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

As we already touched upon, moving towards project leadership is to a large extent related to becoming a more emotionally intelligent leader. In his book, Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ Daniel Goleman found that over 60 percent of the abilities that are essential for a person’s performance were emotional competencies and when it came to leadership positions that number rose to 90 percent (7). He showed that as a person moves up in the organizational hierarchy, more EQ capabilities showed up as the reason for that person’s effectiveness.

Figure 1.6   The five main areas of Emotional Intelligence

Project Leadership from project management-to project leadership.

But what exactly is emotional intelligence? EQ can be defined as ‘the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically’ (8).

What this means is that people with a high level of EQ are able to accurately identify and understand their own emotions and those of others. This doesn’t mean that emotionally intelligent people are nice all the time or that they never feel sad, angry, or frustrated. People with a high level of EQ don’t push aside their emotions, nor do they let their emotions dominate everything that they do.

Instead, they notice how they feel at any given time and consciously make a choice about how much emotion they want to express. Not only do they notice their own emotions, they also notice what is going on for other people. Is my client or team member feeling happy, sad, angry, or fearful right now? How does that make me feel and how would I like to respond so that I can achieve the best outcome for both of us?

To get a better understanding of emotional intelligence and what it means to you as a project manager and leader, we can break it further down into five main areas: Self-awareness, Self-management, Social awarenessRelationship management and Motivation.


This capability is about knowing your emotions and recognizing a feeling as it happens.

When you are able to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives, it’s a sign that you are self-aware. You are not trying to suppress your emotions or lie to yourself about how you feel about your project. Quite the opposite.


READ ALSO: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership


When you feel sad, you acknowledge it. And when you feel angry about something or someone who triggers you, you acknowledge that too. Most leadership development programs seek to increase your level of self-awareness before providing you with strategies. In this book, we do the same by focusing on self-awareness in Chapter 2 before delving into the 7 keys in Chapter 3.


This capability is about managing your emotions and handling your feelings so that they are appropriate when leading your project. With high levels of self-awareness comes a choice of how much emotion you want to show to other people. Just because you feel angry or stressed on the inside, it doesn’t mean that you have to show that anger to your client, stakeholders or team members.

Think about how great leaders maintain their composure during a crisis.

They’re able to self-regulate by suspending judgment. They control or redirect disruptive impulses by thinking before they act. The benefit isn’t just that a cool and calm mind has a positive effect on the team. It also helps you to make better decisions because you’re not caught up in an emotional whirlwind.

Social Awareness

The next capability is about your willingness and ability to empathize and recognize how other people are feeling. When you empathize it means that you are able to walk in someone else’s shoes and that you can feel and see a situation from the other person’s point of view. During a meeting, you notice your stakeholder’s emotional reaction when you tell them about a new issue.

And when you catch up with a team member you notice if they feel nervous or uneasy. Your ability to empathize is a fundamental ingredient when it comes to building trust and communicating effectively with others.

Relationship Management

The fourth EQ capability is about managing emotions in others and using emotions to build relationships. When you have a high level of social skill and are able to manage relationships on your project effectively, you easily find common ground with stakeholders and build rapport. You also find it easier to influence and communicate with the wider team and inspire them to contribute to a common goal – something that is essential to good leadership.

Managing emotions in others is important because people aren’t as rational as we think they are. To help somebody on your project feel more motivated or overcome resistance to change, you have to be able to understand where they’re coming from and engage them at an emotional level.


SEE VIDEO: How to Manage Emotions in Organizations



The last competency is about your ability to motivate yourself and to direct your emotions in the service of a goal. If you want to build a high-performing team and deliver a successful outcome for your client, you have to be able to delay gratification and suppress your impulses.


READ ALSO: How to Lead, Manage and Motivate Knowledge Workers


As we have already discussed, project leaders are proactive and focus on the vision ahead. They don’t get side-tracked and they don’t put off difficult conversations or unpleasant activities due to how it makes them feel. Motivating yourself takes self-control and the ability to put aside short-term desires in exchange for long-term achievements.

As we move through the book towards Chapters 2 and 3, you will find that we dive into the different areas of emotional intelligence and uncover how emotionally intelligent project leaders think and behave.

How to embed the new behavior

How to embed the learning

  • Use The Project Leadership Matrix™ to determine your typical operating style as a project manager.
  • Assess the situations in which you tend to be reactive and firefight and what the underlying reasons and triggers are.
  • Assess the extent to which you have a task-oriented and authority-based approach to people; ie do you predominantly relate to people from a rational standpoint as opposed to a more personal and empathetic standpoint?
  • Consider in which situations you prefer to control the detail of a project and tell people what to do and how to do it. What is the impact of operating in this way?
  • List as many benefits as you can of stepping into the project leadership space and how it will help you to better manage and lead projects in light of increasing complexity.

Checklist: Have you mastered the learning?

  • You acknowledge that the world is becoming increasingly complex and that it has a profound impact on the project management profession. You accept that you need to adapt, grow, and learn.
  • You are able to assess in which part of The Project Leadership Matrix™ you operate most of the time, what it is costing you and what it would take to change it.
  • You understand the five main areas of emotional intelligence and why they are important to project leadership.
  • You have a clear understanding of the behaviors you need to stop in order to become a more effective project manager and leader.

Notes to chapter 1 in The Power of Project Leadership

7 Goleman, D (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

8 Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 19 March 2019] Emotional intelligence [Online].


This extract is from The Power of Project Leadership (2nd edition) by Susanne Madsen ©2019 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

We would like to thank the author, Susanne Madsen, and the publisher Kogan Page for generously sharing actionable knowledge and thereby contributing to knowledge having a real-life impact.

project leadership