PM Articles > Executive View > What does "Great PM" leadership look like?

What does "Great PM" leadership look like?

by Cinda Voegtli

I've talked in previous articles about aspects of being a great project manager, including what I view as business-oriented leadership: driving forward and leading the team to ensure that a project is launched, planned, and executed with alignment to business goals and customer needs.

I haven't yet touched much on a different aspect of leadership, which I refer to the "leadership persona" - not just what you do as a leader, but also how you come across to others as you lead the team. Along the line I have heard particular managers labeled as strong leaders based (apparently) on their extroverted motivational styles. "He's really good at keeping the team charged up." "She's excellent at inspiring everyone even when the project is difficult." Did this mean that "rah rah motivational leadership," being good at making speeches to keep the team jazzed, was a must? That's how it came across to me at the time.

Over time I have concluded personally that successful team leadership does not depend on the "rah rah" version of extroverted leadership as a foundational requirement. But I do believe that how you come across to people as you fulfill the project manager role can significantly add to or subtract from your effectiveness and the team's energy, morale, and success.

We ask people to do hard things - work hard, meet tough deadlines, operate in the midst of uncertainty and pressure. It is certainly helpful if the way we lead makes it easier for them to follow and contribute and get it all done with a positive attitude! I have looked back at times to ask myself, who made me feel we had a chance of a great outcome, who instilled in me a sense of confidence and trust, even during particularly challenging projects or organizational situations? And when have I felt I was a good leader in this way, or a NOT so good leader?

Here are a few vignettes:

  • Communicating through more than words: I remember being PM for a new medical software application, lots of feature decisions to make, rapid iterations to make business-critical milestones several weeks apart. One day I was walking down the hall thinking about a decision I had to make. I passed one of the team members and he said, with quite a bit of worry in his voice, "Wow, what's wrong?!" Startled, I said "Nothing, why?" His answer was, "You just looked really tense and I thought something had gone wrong on the project." I realized that he had seen my problem-solver face. Coming from an engineering background, where a primary joy in life is in wrestling nasty problems to the ground, intense worrying of the details of a problem is normal, not negative, actually a positive! But there I was, giving this team member the impression that the sky might be about to fall in. Was I walking around looking like this all the time? There were certainly enough challenges on this project that it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Yikes! When a project is intense already, who needs their leader walking around looking like doom?
  • Quiet Competence: (From the example I gave in a previous column about a PM who totally hated "doing the leader thing" in terms of speaking motivationally to the team.) This PM had credibility based on how she competently and relentlessly led the team forward, ensuring the right work got done, handling issues, asking the right questions, getting the team support, speaking up for the business goals. When the team needed some emotional uplift during tense times, she finally realized that she didn't have to turn into some back-slapping hearty person she wasn't. She had their respect and she could be herself and speak in her own style. What mattered to them was her competence (and quiet competence was fine!), and her steadiness through everything - knowing what needed to be done, getting executive support, dealing with all the issues.
  • Strength plus charisma: At the other end of the spectrum from my problem-solving face, I once worked in a partnership with a firm whose President was someone I'd call a more charismatic, extroverted leader. It was interesting to watch him in action. Although he was certainly more extroverted than me, I didn't feel the strength of his persona was making "motivational speeches" per se. It was simply his way of consistently interacting with people around the office. He was upbeat in general, energetic about whatever needed to get done, relaxed about whatever problems we were working on at any given time. That does not mean he was a softie, happy and positive at the expense of tough decisions and standing his ground when needed. He was a strong voice on direction, expected lots from his people, drove to milestones the group needed to meet, and dealt with issues aggressively. Neither was his positive persona at all false, a happy mask he wore to team-build when he wasn't driving to the hard goals. To me he had integrated the two aspects of being a leader in a way that inspired confidence throughout his organization.

So past these quick vignettes - what am I trying to get across for us?

As I said up front, it's not just about what we do as project managers, I think it matters how we do it. If I'm slated for a challenging project and I have a choice of project managers, one of whom seems tentative, nervous, upset, reactionary, or even (heaven forbid) whining a lot of the time… versus one who is mostly calm, confident, thoughtful, strong, positive but realistic, and consistently looking for solutions rather than getting upset… who am I going to pick? Well, DUH.

Obviously I've painted the extreme positive and negative versions of the persona. Extremes help create a strong "visual". I think it is a good idea for us to think about what an effective, or not so effective leadership persona looks like in practice, to then consider what aspects of our comportment might negatively impact how effective we are with our teams, and learn new "great PM" behaviors to model.

To provide some closing food for further thought:

I've actually found some words that express aspects of the effective leadership persona, paint a picture of what it looks like and why it matters, better than I have ever been able to. On a vacation I read 1776, a Pulitzer-prize-winning book on George Washington and the Revolutionary War, covering the time leading up to the famous crossing of the Delaware and turning of the tide of the war toward victory. The book painted a candid picture of George Washington as a person and as a leader of the troops. I was so struck by how the book continually brought out his particular leadership persona, I ended up taking down all the passages that really hit me - and would like to pass them along.

They certainly paint a picture for me of a person whose bearing inspires confidence and support and trust, as well as the bearing of a person naturally and competently in charge of a serious effort. It's a bearing I can strive to consistently display with my teams as we move through our project challenges. I hope you'll find these extracts interesting and thought-provoking as you consider the aspects of a leadership persona that matter most for your own role.

From the book 1776 by David McCullough

"It was the look and bearing of a man accustomed to respect and being obeyed. He was not austere. There was no hint of arrogance. "Amiable" and "modest" were words frequently used to describe him, and there was a softness in his eyes that people remembered. Yet he had a certain distance in manner that set him off from, or above, others."

"Be easy, but not too familiar, lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect, which is necessary to support a proper command."

"... [He] has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people."

"...[He] expressed himself to me in such terms that I thought myself bound by every tie of duty and honor to comply in his request to help him through the sea of difficulties."

"Washington was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair."

"It was Washington who held the army together and gave it 'spirit through the most desperate of times'. He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made several mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up..."

"It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world." … "But troops properly inspired and a just confidence in their leader, will often exceed expectations, or the limits of probability."

Well said!

Cinda Voegtli

Related Links
If you're trying to build rapport with the troops, very little beats the tangible and intangible benefits of Management By Walking Around (preferably while carrying candy and not your problem-solving face). You don't have to be Pollyanna to motivate the team on a difficult situation; try these suggestions for rescuing a problem project without overdosing on rah-rah. No matter what kind of project it is, leadership can look very different at different points in the lifecycle.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Excellent, timely article for me...I've been a PM for only 2.5 years and my first project is very large and complex. I'm finding that I need to take a step back now and then to assess my leadership and communication style, this article is timely for me - now is one of those times. Thanks!

Great article! I'm a mid level manager and we find ourselves bouncing back and forth from extremes in leadership (or lack of) in these positions. Seeing ourselves as role model prospects will improve our effectiveness in leading. Thank YOU

Great extract from experience and observation. It does not only apply for project managers but also for all managers and leaders who need to lead the teams towards achievment of a challenging goal.

Hi Cinda,

Although I have not read any of your other articles I have found this information to be exceptional. However, what I realized most was that you are probably more exceptional as Project Manager and as a person. You impress me as a leader that anyone would be glad to follow.

Thanks for being you and sharing your experiences.

W.C. Smith MBA, PMP

I was thinking about your 'quiet competence'. I just joined a company as Project Manager for 1 month. And last week my boss told me that people see me sit at my place. To me - others are busy so I don't disturb although I do walk to people who work(on/off) in my team. (We dont have team members permanently parked in our project). What do you think ?

This article could not have had better timing. I've been pondering for a while on a recent new position and the excerpts have great insight and encouragement. Thank you for leading the way.

Thanks to everyone who has posted - I'm glad this article has struck a chord. And let me say that I personally find writing about this good for me as well. I often wonder whether all these attributes came naturally to George Washington, or whether he had to consciously work at it. I personally have to stay aware of the persona I need to project, especially in times of stress!

To answer Shirlee above: Your boss is pointing out something very important. It's great that you are sensitive to how busy your team members are - but you do have an active role to play and if you're perceived as just sitting in your office, they will not understand your role and what you're contributing. If you don't already have a regular team meeting (even though they're not permanent or full time on your team), I recommend setting something up. The point is not to make them spend a lot of time in a room with you together, but done right it should help gel the work of the team and your role leading it. To do that last thing most effectively - lead the team - ask yourself what they MOST need from you. Reminders of the goals? Take action on obstacles they bring to you? Clarity on what needs to be coordinated among them right now? Possibly some of all of these. And you can just talk candidly with them about your role and your desire to fulfill it while being sensitive to their time as well. I find the frank statement of sensitivity to their time (especially in a place not so used to project managers and dedicated teams) can go a long way.

You said you walk around to those on your team - that's great. That is definitely a chance to stay connected to them, express support, ask how you can help, bring them an update on what you've done to resolve an issue they raised. Between walking around some and using email, you can also stay in touch as the project leader. (My use of the term project LEADER is deliberate... If you walk around and just ask for status, it's not going to have the effect you want. They MAY see you as taking up their time for no good reason if you just ask for status. Leading is about speaking up for the business goals of the project, watching for obstacles, removing them proactively... That should be the focus of your interactions with them, whatever mode you use to most lightly impact their work time.

So, yes to "quiet competence" - but you still have to be "present" with them enough to lead and support.


This article is very helpful for me. But I want to know in case of SQA(Software Quality Assurance) what is the role of and how can he/she helps. Or any article for it.

Hello Cinda,
I just fell into your during a job search and deciding whether or not I wanted to get back into Mgt at the retail level. Some of your references remainded me of the rare few good leaders and mentors that are hard to find. Nicely done and well written. Each sentence was written very personably and carried my interest to the end. Well done and thanks for writing it.

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