Common Mistakes in Project Leadership

leadership-development1The project manager is not just the individual running the meetings, reviewing progress of tasks and monitoring scope. They are, in essence, the de facto ‘leader’ of the project. Depending on the structure of an organization, the person who is ultimately running the project is going to be called upon when it comes to making specific decisions, providing insight or dealing with team issues.

Now generally speaking, project managers will often not have direct employees as part of their reporting structure. Usually, resources are ‘loaned’ or made available to a specific project manager depending on availability, project urgency and various other factors. Despite the org structure, the project manager is, in many cases, taking on people management as part of their remit even if they are not functional managers per se. In projectized or strong matrix organizations, this is often even more obvious and as such, makes the project manager’s duties that much more complex.

With that above in mind, the project manager’s ability to function in a project leadership position will heavily influence how well the project moves forward. Specific character traits such as charisma, organizational skills and ability to convey thoughts and ideas all will yield dividends from the standpoint of interacting with those working on the project. With that being said, there are also specific fallacies that can occur from a project leadership perspective that can undermine the project’s success as a whole. Understanding these common pitfalls will go a long way towards ensuring project success and quality. As such, here is a short compendium of a few common project leadership mistakes that one should avoid:

5 Common Project Leadership Mistakes

1. Never Take the Project for Granted

A common pitfall from a project manager’s perspective is to make a broad-based assumption that once a project is approved, there is no need for further worry. As many of us more seasoned project managers can tell anyone, projects can often start and stop on a moments notice, due to problems, a re-alignment of strategy or simply a shuffle of resources. Some of these are out of control of the project manager, but others, specifically certain problems can often directly derail a project. From the standpoint of being the unofficial ‘leader’ of the project, it is imperative that the project manager constantly engages with the sponsor and stakeholders to ensure project traction is still in place as well as convey any potential problems that have manifested. One of the worst situations that can occur is a problem being kept under wraps or ignored completely only to manifest in a large way down stream. Such a situation can cause the sponsor and stakeholders to back out of the project or cut its funding.

2. Conveying Importance to Team Members

A project, like anything in life, will have various facets to it, some of which carry more weight than others. Additionally, the importance of a project may not always be enough of a motivator in and of itself to the team, who may disagree with the urgency of a particular item or the project as a whole. One of the most important tasks a project manager must take on is to convey to the team in both a group and individual basis of what the project is, to answer specific questions regarding the overall agenda and to take feedback as it comes. It certain cases, a bit of a ‘sales pitch’ is needed to the team to ensure they are fully aware of why the project is in place and who has a stake in the matter. Generally speaking, the more senior the sponsor and key stakeholders, the easier it is to convey this notion.

As an addendum, the specific tasks related to the project itself should also not be simply left in a pile to be addressed ad hoc. As indicated earlier, certain tasks carry more weight than others, especially if other tasks are dependent on previous tasks that have to be completed before things can move forward. As such, it is the responsibility of the project manager to ensure the team is fully aware of the priorities and understands how the tasks should be approached. A good tool to use in this circumstance is a PERT chart. (For more information on PERT charts and function, please review the posts: PERT Analysis – Part 1 and Pert Analysis – Part 2)

3. Never Assume that Team Communication Can Function Independently

Whenever a project manager takes the reigns of a specific new project, they are not always dealing with the same cast of individuals or team members. In many cases, resources can fluctuate and no two projects will likely have the exact same set of people assigned to them. As such, in most cases, the team itself needs to ‘re-learn’ how to deal with the new cast of characters. And just like any social situation, learning how to function with other members of the team will always have a bit of a learning curve. Team members often may not know their new peers and as such, will be initially apprehensive when it comes to engaging in dialog with others. This problem can get further exacerbated if you are dealing with situations of geographic isolation or cultural and language barriers. As such, assigning two people to work on a given shared task does not immediately mean they will hit the ground running and be able to work collaboratively. In these circumstances, the project manager must function as the initial facilitator of communications between team members. A good starting point is driving initial small-scale meetings and dialog with team members who are new to each other, acting as the intermediate. From there, as these team members become more comfortable with each other, the project manager can take more of a back seat, allowing the team to start to perform direct communication between themselves. It is imperative however that the project manager not become complacent and assume everything is going fine. It is important to continue to stay engaged with the entire team and perform some 1 on 1 communication as needed to ensure things are progressing smoothly and that no internal conflicts or arguments have been left unresolved.

As an additional addendum to the preceding, also consider that while the team may have crossed the hurdle of how to talk to one another, they may not always know how to effectively make good decisions. In certain cases, some more senior individual’s opinions on how to tackle a problem may be given more weight than a suggestion from a junior. But that does not always imply it is the right decision. This is why performing follow-ups on specific decisions on tasks is important. In most cases, a formal process of review that includes the project manager is the better option.

4. Never Ignore Feedback

When dealing with the team as the project manager, it is important to be open-minded about any sort of feedback that is provided. Whether it be suggestions on task assignments and design concepts, ideas pertaining to schedules or simple give and take on various other aspects of the project as a whole, all feedback should be acknowledged and encouraged. One of the most important aspects of team dynamics is giving the team the impression that their opinion matters. And nothing can stifle an individual’s morale more than being dismissive of suggestions or outright hostile or defensive when feedback is provided. A team that feels engaged is likely to stay engaged and enthusiastic if they feel like their opinion matters and they are actively contributing to the dialog.

As the project manager, it is important to state at the offset that any and all suggestions are welcome. Have a system and policy in place for specific types of feedback. For larger projects, you may also wish to adopt a type of anonymous ‘suggestion box’ system whereby team members can place their specific pieces of feedback and not feel threatened about any reprisals. Whatever the mechanism, be receptive to the feedback and do not judge or take things personally.

What is paramount in the entire feedback process is to also respond effectively. Simply gathering feedback and taking no action is pointless and will also send a negative message to the team members. Any and all feedback should be acknowledged, considered and, if possible, implemented. If an idea is rejected, an explanation should be provided to whomever provided the suggestion. While not every piece of feedback is actionable, having a system in place that at least allows the team to feel like they can be expressive and contribute to the project as a whole will go a long way towards strengthening team dynamics.

5. Lead By Example (i.e. Walk the walk and talk the talk!)

Of all the mistakes that a leader can make (and not just project managers), nothing is more damaging that setting standards for the team that you yourself do not adhere to. We’ve all seen this in the political realm, whereby politicians espouse certain values and virtues, only to have it discovered that they are violating their own alleged beliefs and convictions. It is hypocritical and unprofessional. There is no difference when it occurs in other career areas, especially project management.

If the project manager is setting standards, whether it be timely status updates, starting meetings on time or being organized and professional, there is a much higher likelihood that the team will follow suit. Being lax on your duties as a project manager will most surely cause the team to be lax as well. But of all things, the most damaging behavior that can occur is if the project manager sets standards which he/she ignores, but at the same time, continues to expect the high standards for the team. It sets a very bad tone to the team, giving them the impression that the project manager believes they are ‘above the law’ so to speak. So not only is it advantageous to set good policies, it is doubly important to follow the guidelines that you are expecting of the team. Be even more Draconian with yourself than you are to other team members. This will set a precedent of high professionalism on your part.


Project leadership is not a cookie cutter concept that one can simply graft from a template. It is a combination of good practice, charisma and understanding. Avoiding some of the pitfalls listed above will go a long way towards improving not only yourself, but the projects you work on. As the project leader, remember that you are the focal point and your behavior cascades not only to the team, but the sponsor and stakeholders as well.