IPMA International Project Management Association
24 January 2018 / 8:22

Project Management and the Five Traits of Leadership

Not too long ago, Jack Welch formulated and posted on LinkedIn five essential traits a real leader needs to demonstrate (LinkedIn, May 15, 2016). In his opinion, main factors that differentiate a leader from the crowd are:

  • positive energy — the capacity to go-go-go with healthy vigour and an upbeat attitude through good times and bad
  • ability to energise others, releasing their positive energy, to take any hill
  • edge — the ability to make tough calls, to say yes or no, not maybe
  • talent to execute — very simply, get things done
  • have passion — care deeply, leaders sweat, they believe

Although there are open critics on the pressure he placed on management and employees, probably nobody questions that Jack Welch was a good leader. Although his five traits could be challenged especially when taking an international perspective into consideration, I would like to work out what the five traits mean for a Project Manager. Furthermore, I want to bridge the five traits with the concept of competences. Finally, I am going to show, that these competences can be both developed and measured.

Should a Project Manager be a Project Leader?

Traditional Project Management education focuses on tools, techniques, and approaches. PMI, Prince2, PM2, SAFe – you name it, they all focus on processes and tools. That’s reasonable, it is a sound foundation for Project Managers. But it is by far not enough. A good Project Leader needs more, he or she needs a whole set of specific competences.

  • It’s by far not enough that you know how to set up a sound project plan. You need to execute, to engage others, to care about all stakeholders involved. A Project Leader not only knows how to do project planning, he or she is also competent to execute the plan, can integrate and energise others.
  • It’s by far not enough that you know how to report delivery, time, and cost spent on a project. A Project Leader makes sure that the project delivers to the benefits of the stakeholders involved, within the given constraints, limited resources, changing requirements, or regulatory environment.
  • It’s by far not enough that you know what you should do in a crisis situation. You need to have enough competences to identify the underlying reasons for the crisis, execute the right actions in an optimal order to tackle the situation. A Project Leader has enough energy for him or herself to stand the crisis, to energise others not to give up, to make tough decisions, which are executed even in bad, and still to believe strongly in the project and the teams.

But can you, really? Are you competent?

In his article Jack Welch is arguing that only two of the five traits can be taught — edge and ability to execute. That might be correct if you use the term teaching in a rather narrow meaning, typically in normal school or training settings. School setting, even on the university level, as well as training sessions during work, are means to provide knowledge. Nowadays, rather applied knowledge. But still knowledge. They usually can‘t provide competences. Competences need to be gathered through lifelong learning, day by day, project by project, task by task.

Of course, the level of energy is typical to every individual. But even here, positive energy can be trained, maybe with the use of on-the-job training, maybe with coaching and mentoring, but surely not in a typical classroom setting. Jack Welch himself was probably not the same man when he was 20, as he was the CEO of GE. What an individual is, and how he or she behaves is not just partly defined in advance, but is more a result of the experience and environment in which he or she lives and acts, and therefore can be taught in a wider sense – a person learns from his or her environment and can adapt accordingly.

To energise others you first need to understand them – as before breaking the rules you must first master them. Although also with this trait, there are significantly different preconditions of each and all of us. Energising others and especially understanding them can be trained and developed while walking through life. Having experiences with many people (and not just to meet them), with totally different backgrounds and cultures, together with an open mind to learn and take advantage of being different, makes you significantly improve the ability to energise others.

With having passion is maybe a little bit different. If you observe very young children playing – you immediately realise that they are totally passionate about everything they do. It is fascinating to observe with what passion they play with almost nothing, how they can be fascinated observing a tiny, little fly, experiment with pure water or sand. Through education, school, and societal norms we all are rather forced to forget the ability to focus on the one and only thing we love. We are taught to do what others want us to do instead of what we are so passionate about. This trend is followed when entering the business world: you are told what to do. You may be lucky you encountered a good employer and a good boss. Even then, you can hardly do – in all freedom – what you are passionate about.

To develop passion is therefore not something you need to do about, it is rather important to remove hurdles which limit your passion, like unnecessary administrative barriers, long decision-making procedures, or even totally missing decision. A task rather for an employer than for the individual to develop. But though, a Project Leader does exactly this for the team, and for him or herself: removing unnecessary hurdles.

Can you measure your progress in competences in project management?

Of course, you can, this is really easy. At least when you believe in all the beautiful marketing campaign of the very many training providers around the globe. But do you really believe it’s helpful to do a four-day training, followed by a three hours computer training to become competent? Is this certificate really worth the paper it is printed on? Of course, measurement of your competence development is by far not that easy.

Traditional certification focusses on knowledge, in the best cases of applied knowledge. You have to prove that you know e.g. about risk management, project or sprints planning, team setup, stand-up meetings, etc. In traditional, computer-based certifications you may be asked to describe what you would do in a specific situation – using applied knowledge. The answers are predefined, by the method and/or training provider. But as you know exactly, the reality looks almost always different to the case studies in these pieces of training and the respective exams.

In contrast to all others, IPMA certifies competences, not (applied) knowledge. The assessment process is designed to understand what you have actually done in specific situations (not what you would do!), why you have done it the way you have, how helpful the actions taken were to succeed, and what is the learning you took with you for a possible similar situation in the future. Not just for methods and tools, but for all of the 28 competences described in the baseline IPMA ICB4®. It‘s obvious that this process, which can be done with experts only and not with a sophisticated computer programme, takes longer, and costs more. But what you finally get is an independent certificate which proves that you have demonstrated your competence and showed that the probability you may succeed in the future again, is high. All based on life-long learning.

In ICB4, IPMA has described ten competences in the “people” area. They include the five traits Jack Welch mentions, but also: self-reflection, self-management, personal integrity, reliability, personal communication, negotiation, trustworthy, honesty, openness, resourcefulness, etc. A competent Project Leader is a complete, well balanced individual who can plan and deliver results and benefits in a most sustainable way. Of course, project management is about “go-go-go”, but by far not only.

1 Comment

  • Great insight on the difference between a project manager and project leader. One important take away is that true professionals need to continue to improve on competencies and not just the hard skills that every project manager should know.

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Martin Sedlmayer

Author of this post

With more than 35 years of professional experience, Martin Sedlmayer leads successfully complex change programmes. During his career, he has worked in the domain of project management as a project manager, programme leader, portfolio manager, and manager of project organisations. His industry experience includes finance, manufacturing, logistics and not-for-profit organisations.

His special interest is the challenge of competence development. He was lead editor and project manager for the new ICB4® (global competence standard for individuals working in project, programme and portfolio management). Currently, he serves as Vice President of IPMA’s Executive Board for Products and Services, as board member of both the Swiss national project management association spm and the Swiss certification body VZPM.

Martin is IPMA Level A® certified, acts as an assessor for fifteen years in various countries and holds a MBA in International Management from the University of Applied Sciences in Berne Switzerland, the University of Freiburg Germany, the State Polytechnical University of St., Petersburg Russia, the Babson College of Boston USA and Jiao Tong University of Shanghai China. He publishes regularly, speaks at conferences and events worldwide.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

His LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/sedlmayermartin