Executive Update

Leadership: Part I -- Cracking the Code for Today's Project Managers

Posted February 24, 2010 | Leadership |

What kind of project manager do you need to be in an economic downturn? Project management, especially in the changing world of a recession, is challenging work. Just when you are feeling most pressured and vulnerable, you need to be strongest and most generous in mind and spirit. Indeed, as leadership guru John Kotter notes, "More change always requires more leadership."1 Effective project managers cannot be reduced to merely what they know (e.g., certification) and do (e.g., processes). So what makes a great project leader?

This is the first in a three-part Executive Update series that applies the rules of effective leadership to the challenging role and tasks of project management. The series is based on research done in The Leadership Code by Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman.2

We all know that leadership makes a difference, good or bad. The challenge is making sense out of the vastness of writings on the topic and then successfully applying what you learn to project management. Google the words "leader" and "leadership," and you get more than 20 million hits. The Leadership Code synthesizes decades of research, frameworks, and writings on the topic of leadership into five succinct leadership rules for project managers (see Figure 1). Two of these rules, "Build the Next Generation" (for human capital developer) and "Shape the Future" (for strategist), involve long-term leadership abilities. Other rules, "Make Things Happen" (for executor) and "Engage Today's Talent" (for talent manager), involve short-term leadership skills. In this Update, we begin with the fifth rule, "Invest in Yourself" (for personal proficiency), the ultimate rule of leadership because it anchors the other four.

Figure 1

Figure 1 -- The Leadership Code.


Personal proficiency is about you and your personal qualifications to lead others. It comes from knowing your strengths and weaknesses. It is knowing how to extract important lessons from all facets of your life and use those lessons with energy, courage, and discernment. Personal proficiency requires having the courage to be bold and take quality risks while still having the humility to learn from and share credit with others. In some ways, personal proficiency is the most difficult rule to train or develop. Some project managers are more innately gifted in the personal insights that lead to proficiency, but for all, we can delineate specific recommendations that will help you gain insights into yourself as a project manager and help you become more personally proficient. The seven key principles of personal proficiency are:

  1. Practice clear thinking: rise above the details.

  2. Know yourself.

  3. Tolerate stress.

  4. Demonstrate learning agility.

  5. Tend to your own character and integrity.

  6. Take care of yourself.

  7. Have personal energy and passion.

1. Practice Clear Thinking: Rise Above the Details

Project managers who think clearly can set priorities quickly and act on them. If there is a decision to make, identify it, study it, and make it. If you're wrong, admit it and learn from it, but be willing to act. Rising above the details involves seeing patterns without getting lost in details. Project managers who do this well will frame problems conceptually, communicate outcome-based objectives, and allow others to determine the practices to deliver results. To be a great project leader, it takes more than just looking at the critical path.

2. Know Yourself

Begin by looking in the leadership mirror and being honest with yourself about your personal predispositions: the good, the bad, and the ugly, as the saying goes. The more you understand your predispositions -- to be introverted or extroverted, to seek risk or to avoid it, to work with people or with data, to work with ideas or take action, to be patient or impatient, and so on -- the more you can own your reality and work to adapt it. Your personal insights should liberate, not limit, you. Being good at analytics does not mean you can be only a numbers person. Being less comfortable with interpersonal skills does not mean you can never learn to build a strong, cohesive team. Predispositions are simply starting points. It is almost impossible to improve your leadership skills if you don't have an accurate understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

3. Tolerate Stress

From time to time, all of us find the working world stressful. Factors that inevitably take their toll in the form of stress include the removal of work and life boundaries through BlackBerrys, e-mail, and constant contact; the hours we work; and the promises we strive to keep to customers, colleagues, and ourselves. Leadership also involves taking risks, and sometimes those risks don't work out. Successful project managers recover quickly from setbacks, learn from the situation, and move on. In the midst of inevitable project ups and downs, effective project managers remain in control of their emotions when it counts.

4. Demonstrate Learning Agility

Effective project managers are curious. They want to know more about the outside (markets, the competition) -- and the inside (what is happening in your organization and how it could be better). Successful project managers value learning so highly that they insist others do it, too. Those with learning agility will constantly try to understand how to improve performance -- even when things are working -- and avoid making the same mistakes twice. They surround themselves with people who see the world differently. They also find a balance between analytics grounded in data and intuition rooted in instinct. Both are necessary for learning agility.

5. Tend to Your Own Character and Integrity

Character, integrity, morality, and ethics are the foundation principles for leadership. They show up in many decisions and choices, large and small. Your character is the set of qualities that defines who you are; your adherence to a moral code guides your daily actions and measures your integrity. A character based on strong integrity builds trust. Others' trust in you gives you your leadership mandate. Loyalty and commitment will follow. Commitment, as we all know, is a cornerstone of projects, productivity, and success. Integrity and character is somewhat obvious. When project managers have it, others know it; when they don't, others avoid them.

6. Take Care of Yourself

As a project manager, you need to take care of yourself in many ways, including physical, emotional, and social dimensions. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, meditation, and healthy living allow you to have the stamina to lead. Physical fatigue leads to poor decision making and a lack of confidence from followers. Being an optimist, having a good self-image, having a sense of humor, and feeling that you control your demands also help you reduce stress. Taking time to renew daily, weekly, or monthly not only increases your energy but also sends a signal to others who mimic and watch you. Finally, taking time to connect with your cohorts gives you support when things are difficult. Effective project managers build relationships of trust with key individuals who support them by both caring about them and appropriately challenging them. Be active in reaching out to the people you need, really listening to what they have to offer, and, of course, reciprocating.

7. Have Personal Energy and Passion

When you connect your abilities to your passions, you find meaning. Meaning comes when your work results in outcomes you care about, when you work with people you enjoy, and when you help others grow. How do you do this? You need to show exceptional commitment and energy. Others around you need to see and feel how passionately you enjoy and care about the work that you do.


As you work on these issues, you care for and invest in yourself. Who you are inside affects who you will be with others. Great project leaders who care for themselves monitor how they are doing and know when to engage and when to disengage.

Personal proficiency starts from within. As you care for yourself, you will be better able to care for others. When a well has a source of living water, it continues to provide fresh water to those who draw from the well. To lead, you need to find ways to replenish and take care of yourself so that you can be a source of living water for those who draw from you.

Finally, the authors challenge you to answer the following three questions as you set your goal to follow the rule, "Invest in Yourself":

  1. What personal predisposition -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- do I exhibit, and how am I going to adapt it this year?

  2. If there was only one thing more to know about the outside (markets, the competition) and the inside (what is happening in your organizations, how it could be better), what would that be and how would I make it happen?

  3. If there was only one thing I could do to improve my leadership, what would it be and how would I make it happen?

We suggest real interaction with these questions. Don't just think about them for a minute and then put them aside. Write out your answers. Commit to what you've written down, and start the year off well. When you apply the principles of the Leadership Code, you will improve your performance as a project manager, in downturns as well as upturns.

In Part II, we will explore the short-term orientation, with examples for day-to-day action, how the great project manager must be a talent manager and an executor. In Part III, we will discuss the long-term orientation, how the great project manager must also be a human capital developer and a strategist.


1 Kotter, John P. "What Leaders Really Do." Harvard Business Review, December 2001.

2 Ulrich, Dave, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman. The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By. Harvard Business Press, 2009.

About The Author
Mark Nyman
Mark Nyman, Principal with the RBL Group, assists organizations in transforming themselves by creating strategic focus and then aligning the design and systems of the organization to carry out that focus. He has worked with numerous clients, including Adidas, Cisco, Comcast, Denver Children's Hospital, Honeywell, Kellogg, Landmark Graphics, Shell Oil, Sun, and Williams Energy. Mr. Nyman has a master's degree in organizational behavior from… Read More
Scott Stribrny
Scott Stribrny is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium and a leading figure in the world of process improvement. With over 30 years’ diverse experience, Mr. Stribrny is the cofounder, President, and Managing Director of Group Atlantic, Inc. His current interests include change management, new paradigms for organizational design, and technology-based competitive strategy. Mr. Stribrny advises companies on how to adapt modern software… Read More