Welcome to the second project leadership article in a series of three by Susanne Madsen, who is an expert project leadership coach. This article series is an extract from Madsen’s award-winning book: The Power of Project Leadership: 7 Keys to Help you Transform from Project Manager to Project Leader.

The Power of Project Leadership

This is the second article in a series of three articles:

  1. Project Leadership: The World is Changing and so Must You 1/3

  2. Project Leadership: The 3 most Fundamental Mistakes Project Managers Make 2/3

  3. Project Leadership: Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership 3/3

The 3 most fundamental mistakes project managers make

The project managers I coach and train have a lot in common. Most of them have had some form of training in project management methods, and some are even certified, for instance with PMP®, PRINCE2®, APMP® or IPMA®.Project-Leadership---The-3-Most-Fundamental-Mistakes-Project-Managers-Make-Figure-12

Generally, they want to do a good job and deliver their projects successfully so that they can get the recognition and career growth that they desire. But many are struggling to do just that. They work long hours and are getting through a lot of activities, but they don’t necessarily feel in control. Their projects are slipping, their clients are unhappy and their teams are demotivated.

They have so much on their plate that something has to give. Often it is the most urgent requests that get their attention. At the bottom of the pile are activities that they never get around to, such as learning about their clients’ business, spending more quality time with the team, identifying new and better ways of doing things addressing barriers to change, mitigating risks, and ensuring that the team is ultimately delivering what the client wants and needs. They are simply too busy to be on top of it all and are falling prey to three of the most common traps in project management:

1 They manage tasks, events, and processes at the expense of leading people.

2 They are reactive and focus on the urgent rather than the important.

3 They believe they have to know it all and do it all instead of looking to the team for solutions and innovative ideas.


READ ALSO: Effective Steps that will Help you Increase Teamwork Motivation


Mistake #1: Managing Tasks and Events at the Expense of Leading People

The most common mistake project managers make is that they are more concerned with tasks and events than with people and the human impact of change – often unknowingly.

Many project managers come from a technical background and have a rational, logical, and analytical way of thinking. It means that:

  • they are good at analyzing facts, calculating duration, coordinating activities, and making rational decisions.
  • They are task-focused and concerned with how to get things done.
  • They see their primary role as delivering what the customer has asked for within the agreed parameters of time, cost, and quality.
  • They are less concerned with why their customer needs the product and in which ways it affects their business and the people who develop it and use it.
  • Their strength is in executing and following someone else’s vision and specification – rather than helping to define it.

When it comes to dealing with the team and managing people, many project managers rely on their logical and rational mindset. They assess the work that needs to get done and the skills required to do it and allocate work to team members accordingly. They view their relationship with the team as one based on authority and expect individuals to carry out their job, by and large, because they receive a salary for it.

There is nothing wrong with being logical and task-oriented. As project managers, we need those skills, especially when planning and estimating a large project. The issue arises when this is the only style in the toolbox, which is then being used to also manage people and communicate with customers.

Building high-performing teams, great customer relationships, and ensuring that the project delivers what the customer needs cannot be achieved solely through logic. It requires creativity, empathy, risk-taking, vision, and, most importantly, the ability to connect with people at a very personal level.


READ ALSO: How to Lead, Manage and Motivate Knowledge Workers


Mistake #2: Being Reactive and Focusing on the Urgent Rather than the Important

The second big mistake that many project managers make is that they are too concerned with urgent matters that need to be resolved in the here and now as opposed to being proactive and dealing with the long term. These urgent matters could relate to anything from technology, resources, requirements, finances, and defects to people-related issues.

It’s human nature to respond to queries and issues, and it makes us feel good because we are taking action and being seen to do something. In addition, the brain is attracted to new things and likes variety, and for that reason, we may even seek ‘the urgent’, for instance when we frequently check our e-mail to see if anything pressing has arrived.

Whereas it can be essential to deal with an important issue as it arises, many urgent requests simply aren’t important. Oftentimes they aren’t the best use of our time and they keep us away from the larger and more strategic aspects of the project that are fundamental to success. We may feel that we are responding to the more-for-less culture by working harder and by putting out more fires, but what we are doing could be the exact opposite.

By busying ourselves and attending to urgent short-term requests, we operate at a surface level. We never get to address the root causes and free ourselves up to thinking smarter thoughts: questioning, innovating, and developing human capital, including our own.


EXERCISE: The urgent versus the important

Please take some time to consider the first exercise. It’s essential that you carefully consider the insightful questions presented to you, as self-awareness is the first step to transformation. Please write down all your observations and learning in a separate notebook specifically dedicated to your professional development:

  • Take a step back and ask yourself how much you recognize from the preceding scenario. How often do you leave the office with a feeling that you didn’t get to address the most important and strategic aspects of the project because you were too busy dealing with short-term issues?
  • What are the implications of operating like that?
  • If you were given three hours more at work each day, which important activities would you like to spend that time on?


Mistake #3: Believing that we have to Know all the Answers

The third big mistake project managers make is that they believe they have to know all the answers. This helps them make decisions, communicate with clients, approve work, and stay in control of the project. As a result, they are often involved in very detailed conversations and in the decisions that help shape how the work is to be carried out by their teams.

Whereas this approach works well for individual contributors and on small projects, it’s a lot less effective on projects where there is a reliance on a team or where there is an element of complexity. Feeling that we have to know it all puts a huge amount of pressure on the project manager’s shoulders and forces us to be involved in almost all conversations across the project. Not only is it exhausting and inefficient, it also disengages the team, as it is not being sufficiently involved in defining the work it is meant to carry out.

Wanting to know and control the details invariably means that project managers default to telling others what to do. This in itself is very disempowering, but it also results in the project being cut off from its best thinking – that of its team members.

Instead of telling people what you know, help them learn what they need to know

A far better option is to be the enabler, someone who asks the right questions and who challenges the team to think its best thoughts and do its best work. Instead of telling people what you know, help them learn what they need to know. In the Forrester report, Mary Gerush writes, ‘Next-generation project managers let go of control and delegate responsibility to the team. They position themselves as facilitators and removers of roadblocks, and they eliminate distractions, enabling the team to perform its job (6)’.

Case1: I learned how to get things done through others

Penny Pullan, Director of Making Projects Work Ltd and author of Virtual Leadership and Business Analysis and Leadership

Project managers tend to get overloaded and then think that the solution is to go flat out doing all the work themselves and jettison all the important things like stakeholder engagement and communication as nice to have but not enough time for!

I personally fell into this trap years ago, when I was less experienced and given a big chance to take on a major project. The project in question was already late, hadn’t delivered anything and I was the third project manager. In short, it was failing.

Those of you who are more experienced than I was then will see many danger signals, but for me, it was my first big chance. I relished the opportunity to deliver something big. The project team’s motivation was rock bottom after all the delay, changes in project manager and lack of delivery, and within a couple of weeks starting, all of the rest of the team had resigned.


READ ALSO: How to Kill or Increase the Motivation of your Employees


All of a sudden, I was both the project manager and the project team! There was so much work to do that I stopped communicating with stakeholders, bar sending out hundreds of e-mails each day, and put my head down to get everything done. Needless to say, overload followed. The project delivered a good product just before the deadline, but it wasn’t fun. I had put the doing of the project work (by me as it turns out) above the need to influence others to get things done.

A few years after this poisonous project, the lessons I’d learned so painfully about getting things done through others were bearing fruit. By this time, I was program manager for a global endeavor involving the United Nations, government ministers, and directors of multinational companies as key stakeholders. As before, when I joined, the program was running late and hadn’t yet delivered.

This time, within six months, we’d delivered the key product. Did I say that only 50 percent of my time was allocated to this global program?

What a difference! So what was it that made the difference? By then, I knew how to get things done through others, even those who were much more senior than me and in different organizations and even based on different continents.

My transformation had begun by learning lessons from the overload and frustration of my earlier project. I had modeled what I saw the very best project managers doing and found what worked. I was also lucky enough to have a coach and mentor and had developed very strong facilitation skills over the years.

Case 2: Happy project teams are not those with the least problems to solve, but those that are best empowered to solve problems

Colleen Garton, author of Fundamentals of Technology Project Management and Managing Without Walls

Many project managers go wrong because they direct too much of the ‘how’ rather than assigning the ‘what’ and letting each person figure out the ‘how’ on their own. A leader’s role is to develop and grow strong teams so the strengths of the organization are multiplied by the number of people employed by it. If the leader tries to make all the decisions and direct every single action, the employees’ strengths will never be developed or utilized.


READ ALSO: What is Responsible Leadership?


It is a waste of good talent. Another typical mistake is that project managers take a reactive approach to management rather than a proactive approach.

Risk, contingency, and mitigation planning is never wasted time. It enables plans to be put into action quickly and efficiently in the event of a problem and helps avoid frenzied firefighting and panic. Taking a reactive approach results in a stressed-out manager and team every time a problem is encountered – which is almost every day on a project team! Happy project teams are not those with the least problems to solve; they are the teams that are best empowered to solve problems (even catastrophic ones) calmly and methodically.

The Project Leadership Matrix™ and your Modus Operandi

Let us examine the three fundamental project management mistakes – and the differences between management and leadership – in a bit more detail.

We will do that by looking at The Project Leadership Matrix™, which is illustrated in Figure 1.3. On the horizontal axis, we have task focus on the left-hand side and people focus on the right-hand side. On the vertical axis, we have reactive towards the bottom and proactive towards the top.

Figure 1.3 The Project Leadership Matrix


People who operate on the left-hand side of the matrix predominantly have a rational and logical mindset and are focused on skills, events, and processes.

They make use of their logic and authority when assigning work and will often tell their team members what to do. We could say that this approach to managing people is a push approach.

On the contrary, people who operate on the right-hand side of the matrix have a natural tendency to focus on people. They don’t rely on their authority but appeal to people by finding out what motivates each person at an individual level. People-focused leaders involve team members in the decisions that affect them and show them how they fit into the overall vision.

They don’t just tell people what to do, but inspire them by painting an appealing picture of the project’s objectives that they would like them to contribute to. We can call this a pull approach. They pull people with them like a magnet instead of pushing or forcing them.

If you are in doubt where on this scale you operate, think about how easy or difficult you find it to approach a person who doesn’t report to you. In matrix organizations, where team members don’t have an organizational reporting line to the project manager, we cannot rely on our authority to allocate work. This is a situation that task-oriented project managers find challenging – not least when the team member they need to interface with is in a senior position and has a lot of experience. In such situations, we need to make use of our people and influencing skills and of our understanding of human behavior rather than relying on authority.

Let’s examine the dimensions of the vertical axis, reactive versus proactive.

People who operate in a reactive manner – towards the bottom of the matrix – are drawn to immediate issues that crop up. Even if they arrive at work with a clear intention of what they need to achieve, they may not achieve it because something urgent or unexpected comes up and derails them. They spend their time following the flow of events rather than defining it and are constantly on a back foot.


READ ALSO: What is Situational Leadership Theory? Definitions & Examples


At the other end of the scale, we find people with a proactive mindset. People who operate towards the top of the matrix are concerned with the project’s strategic vision and they take steps every single day to create a successful future for the project. They set their own agenda to the benefit of the project, the client, and the team. They don’t make knee-jerk decisions and only firefight when a true crisis emerges that cannot wait and that no one else can deal with. In that situation, they will strive to address the root causes and put in place measures to ensure that the issue doesn’t reoccur.



Where in The Project Leadership Matrix™ are you positioned?

  • Look at The Project Leadership Matrix™ and determine where you operate most of the time. Do you have a natural preference for tasks or people?
  • Do you rely on your authority over people, or do you inspire and influence people at an individual level?
  • Are you good at attending to important activities that lead to the success of your project, or do you often get side-tracked and interrupted?


Although most of us operate in all four quadrants depending on the situation, we have a tendency to spend the majority of our time in one of them.

Project managers who are not getting the results they want operate predominantly in quadrant number II (indicated by a circle with a cross in Figure 1.4). They spend too much time firefighting and dealing with events and tasks that urgently need to be resolved. They are good at getting things done but will never be successful at implementing a strategic change initiative as long as they operate from this space. The biggest sign that something is wrong is the lack of clear direction and the number of project issues that crop up – interpersonal or otherwise.

Figure 1.4  The Ideal Positioning of Project Leadership


Oftentimes projects are kicked off before they are fully defined, roles and responsibilities are unclear, rules of engagement haven’t been agreed upon, stakeholders are not engaged, requirements are too vague and objectives aren’t aligned to corporate strategy.

Ultimately the project fails to deliver the expected benefits – or if it does deliver them, it’s a long and arduous road to getting there.

Project managers who get outstanding results tend to operate in the top part of the matrix – in between quadrant III and quadrant IV. They are proactive and focused on the project’s long-term strategy and they are partly oriented towards tasks and partly towards people. As you can see in Figure 1.4, this area is marked with an oval shape called Project Leadership.

Project leaders continue to be mindful of the task side of the project and will not be effective if they operate exclusively in quadrant IV. People who operate exclusively in quadrant IV have great ideas and are good at inspiring people, but will often have no concrete plans or operational strategies to back up their vision. Project leaders can also spend time in quadrants I and II from time to time but it is not a strategy they rely on to get results.

Many project managers find it difficult to break out of the reactive and task-oriented pattern. They don’t see how they can free up time and energy to proactively deal with people and the strategic side of the project. They are caught in the reactive management trap and find it hard to shift their overreliance on control and rational thinking to a more people-oriented approach of trust and openness. After all, most of us are trained in mastering the detail and in thinking logically rather than building relationships and leading people.


SEE ALSO: How to Manage Emotions in Organizations


In addition, the more-for-less culture isn’t helping. In many cases, it may be increasing the workload and pushing people into a reactive and task-oriented mode. But no matter why we find ourselves in these situations, there will always be ways around them by thinking creatively and by knowing that we have a choice. We may not be able to change external factors, such as limited budgets, reduced workforces, and a reactive company culture, but we can control how we respond to them, what we choose to focus on and how we influence people around us.

I was almost at the point of giving up my job as a project manager in financial services because I found it to be too exhausting. Little did I know that my working patterns were self-imposed and not the fault of the industry, the company, the project, the client, or my manager.

It is easy to feel victimized and look for someone to blame outside of ourselves. But the reality is that we hold the answer and the key to working more effectively, getting better results, feeling more energized, and working with people to deliver better projects. Had I left my job I would have found the exact same problems elsewhere. Instead, I started examining what I could do to change the situation. I started looking at how I could work smarter rather than harder.

Case 3: Delegate, prioritize, and focus on what’s important

Peter Taylor, author of The Lazy Project Manager 

While working with a particularly demanding team of people, the project I was managing some years ago hit a problem. There was an aggressive deadline, and there was a quite aggressive steering committee. The deadline loomed towards us but the technical challenges seemed neverending.

As quickly as one was resolved another (if not more) seemed to take its place. The working days got longer and the toll of all this pressure began to cause serious stress faults in the project team. In the midst of all this fractious harmony, we hit the problem. If the team had been at full efficiency and working as one, I am sure we would have spotted the cause earlier and resolved the issue quickly and quietly. As it was, we didn’t do either. The cause went unresolved and the effects seemed to spiral ever towards being out of control completely. Rapid-response meetings were convened, and everybody was trying to resolve the issue.

Unfortunately, this meant that people stopped doing their day jobs, which resulted in further delays threatening the project.

Just when I honestly thought it was all going to implode, I had one of those ‘eureka’ moments. I can’t say it was planned and I can’t say it was done in a positive or creative spirit. It was done in a moment when I just had had enough. I ordered various parts of my project team off to various parts of the company offices to ‘go and do their jobs and get us back on track’. Inadvertently I gave a number of people the authority to stop worrying about the problem and to concentrate once more on their scheduled tasks.

In addition, I was left with one fairly junior technical guy and, for the want of anything else to do, told him to head off to the IT department and find someone who could help think this problem through.

I had fallen into the trap of becoming subjective in all the chaos and panic

And what did I do? Well, I was the one who went to the pub. I admit it, I just needed to escape the pressure and think. I had fallen into the trap of becoming subjective in all the chaos and panic, and I know now I should have remained above everything and objective in my view.

What happened then were three things. First, I had a very nice steak pie, chips, and peas with a pint of beer. Second, the junior technical guy just so happened to talk to the right person. And third, the issue was initially worked around and later resolved through some third-party intervention.

filter what you should deal with, delegate everything you can, prioritize what is left and then focus on what is important

I was lucky. The crisis passed and the project staggered on for a while and eventually delivered, later than expected, but nevertheless it did deliver. But it did teach me an important lesson – filter what you should deal with, delegate everything you can, prioritize what is left, and then focus on what is important. In this case, I did none of these things and was lucky to get the result I did.


Go to the next article in Susannne Madsen’s article series about Project Leadership:

Project Leadership: Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership (3/3)

Notes for: Project Leadership: The 3 Most Fundamental Mistakes Project Managers Make (2/3)

6 Gerush, M (2009) Define, Hire and Develop Your Next-Generation Project Managers, Forrester Research


This extract is from The Power of Project Leadership (2nd edition) by Susanne Madsen ©2019 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

We would like to thank the author, Susanne Madsen, for teaching us leadership in project management just as we thank the publisher Kogan Page for generously sharing actionable knowledge and thereby contributing to knowledge having a real-life impact.

Go to the last article in this series: Project Leadership: Moving from Project Management to Project Leadership (3/3).


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