Project Leadership: A Demanding Role

Yes, of course we all know it is hard – demanding – to be a project leader.

But I want to ask a different question:

What is it that Project Leaders should be
Demanding of their teams?

Leaders need to expect something special from the people they lead.  If your project is to be truly worthwhile, then you need to demand extraordinary contributions of your people.

First though, let me be clear about the sense in which I am using the word, lest I be accused of promoting solely command and control leadership – which I am not.  Nor by the way, do I deprecate its use in the contexts where it is appropriate.

Demand can mean an insistence, a peremptory request or requirement, made as of right.  I am using it here to mean an expectation of something that is just. This is closer to the Latin root, demandare – to hand over or entrust, coming from mandare, to enjoin – also the source of our word mandate.

Do you want me to live up to your expectations…

… or down to them?

When you make extraordinary demands of people, you are giving a powerful message of trust and respect.  So set expectations that pull hard (not that push hard) – expectations that give people a chance to perform at astonishing levels and show you what they are truly capable of.

Telescope and Microscope

Leaders need to achieve a broad perspective across their project, but you also need to be able to focus in on the tiniest detail  – and do so without creating a sense of interference.  Do this by taking an interest in the detail.  You need to do this, not just because that’s where the devil is, but because it is the way you find out whether your people are giving your project the level of attention and dedication you should be demanding.  Don’t accept anything less than the highest standards the project aspires to.

Expect Success

Fear of failure can paralyse a team, so let them know that you are confident of success.  But never be afraid to reward the right sort of failure: the failure that comes from taking bold, yet calculated risks that do not pay off.  If you never accept failure, then all you will get is risk avoidance tactics, with no chance of innovation or creativity.  Measure success by the behaviours you want, and expect those behaviours.

Let them see the Competition

Here’s one area where success is important – beating the true competition.  Use a common enemy to galvanise commitment, whether it’s a competing business, another project team, or even, in one case, a senior project executive who doubted my team could deliver a work package to an exacting schedule: we did.


One role of a project leader is to help her or his team to learn and develop in their skills. Team discussions of what happened and what resulted are a key part of this process, but they can only learn from events if you demand scrupulous honesty about what happened and how each person contributed.


Empowering team members to make choices and act on judgement is important, but this must sit within defined boundaries, and they must take responsibility for the decisions they make.  This means that you must demand clear lines of accountability and excellent communication at all times.

More on Project Leadership

Brilliant Project Leader, by Mike Clayton

“Highly readable with a great voice and sentiment – PMO’s and PPM’s will make this required reading because Mike has assembled a career’s worth of project leadership lessons and gives them away (e.g. purpose and strategy plus tactics you can use right now).

Mike teaches PM’s how to lead and further conveys how project choices and leadership style make or break a PM’s career.  There are gems that get only a blurb because others command checklists and pages of valuable, situational lessons and insights.  Read it carefully – because even the basics Mike mentions casually actually are hard lessons learned and deserving of entire presentations to drive the value of each point home.  Even better for PM’s everywhere is that Mike’s book frames it all in the most relevant context dear to all of us – project delivery.

Al Dean,
PM Knowledge Transfer blog

Read an interview based on the last chapter of Brilliant Project Leader,
Becoming more resilient: interview with Mike Clayton” at the TalkingWork website.


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