Project Managers and Their Leadership Skills

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

In the “live” workshops and PMI chapter speeches I deliver, the topic of management skills and leadership skills are often important discussions. In essence, project managers find themselves dealing with soft skills as much as the hard skills. In the nine knowledge areas of project management are contained the hard skills of project leadership and every project manager must stay on top of those skills, for sure. Those areas are not really my expertise. I coach and train around the soft skills. Surprisingly, there are nine areas of leadership competencies that are important in the area of soft skill development. They are:


These skills or competencies are in prerequisite order. In other words, a project leader should be able to clearly define the direction of the project before being able to align people to the direction. Once the project team is aligned to the scope and vision and direction is set, a project leader can begin motivating and inspiring the team members. In reality, these competencies are not a check list but rather leadership skills that are played out in everyday project life. In an organic and fluid manner these leadership proficiencies unfurl at various times and in assorted ways in a project.

As you know, projects have a life cycle and the use of these skills emerge in different orders and with assorted intensities depending on the project cycle. The question I get many times in my training and coaching with project leaders is, “When do I use management skills and when do I use leadership skills?” Well, my experience is that the skills are used simultaneously and interchangeably throughout any given day in the life of a project. Project leaders wear their management hats and their leadership hats to work. As you go about keeping the nine knowledge areas of project management in play the other nine competencies are needed, as well.

Nothing here is profound, but leadership skills are learned just like knowledge areas are learned. As I coach and train many “leadership breakthroughs” happen in great managers’ lives. It is just a matter of honing leadership skills and being aware of their importance to the overall success of every project leader.

K. Scott Derrick said “Management is a position that is granted; leadership is a status that is earned.” I think his assertion is correct. A project management position is granted or contracted but the leadership it requires to bring vision, clarity and alignment to the human capital is quite another thing. That is where leadership comes in. Some say that when you leave a management position you leave the job description and the scope behind, but you take your leadership to the next job.

Abraham Zaleznik said that, “Managers are oriented to process, while leaders are attuned to substance. Process is concerned with establishing procedures for solving problems, while substance deals directly with the problems at hand. Process is soon related to obsessive thinking and depressive emotional states, while substance energizes and draws on imaginative thinking. Managers tend instinctively to delegate; leaders like to get involved in working toward solutions to substantive problems.” Remember, that leadership development is a journey with no finish line! I hope your next management project is laden with your leadership skills.

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