Software projects create a unique need for effective leadership nowadays, unlike general business operations, where roles and responsibilities are often established, and consistent, projects often involve multiple organizations, departments, functions, or vendors that do not interact regularly. Moreover, projects may carry higher stakes and expectations than regular operational functions.
As a result, a broader array of managers, executives, senior contributors, and other stakeholders attempt to influence a project. This often creates higher degrees of confusion and conflict. Consequently, higher-performing projects demonstrate effective leadership behaviors more frequently and from more people than most projects.
A project environment that prioritizes vision, creativity, motivation, enthusiasm, encouragement, and empathy can support better outcomes. These traits are often associated with leadership. Leadership comprises the attitude, talent, character, and behaviors to influence individuals within and outside the project team toward the desired outcomes.
Leadership is not exclusive to any specific role. High-performing projects may feature multiple people exhibiting effective leadership skills, for example, the project manager, sponsors, stakeholders, senior management, or even project team members. Anyone working on a project can demonstrate effective leadership traits, styles, and skills to help the project team perform and deliver the required results.
It is important to note that more conflict and confusion can emerge when too many participants attempt to exert project influence in multiple, misaligned directions. However, higher-performing projects show a paradoxical combination of more influencers, each contributing more leadership skills in a complementary way. For example: if a sponsor articulates clear priorities, then a technical lead opens the discussion for delivery options, where individual contributors assert pros and cons until the project manager brings the conversation to a consensus strategy. Successful leadership enables someone to influence, motivate, direct, and coach people under any condition. It also incorporates characteristics derived from an organization’s culture and practices.
Leadership should be distinct from authority, which is the position of control given to individuals within an organization to foster overall effective and efficient function. Authority is the right to exercise power. Authority is usually delegated to a person formally, such as a charter document or designated title. This person may have a role or position description indicating their authority. Authority denotes accountability for certain activities, actions of individuals, or decision-making in certain circumstances. While individuals may use their power to influence, motivate, direct others, or act when others do not perform or act as directed or requested, this is not the same as leadership. For example, organizational executives may grant someone the authority to form a project team to deliver an outcome. However, authority alone is insufficient. It takes leadership to motivate a group toward a common goal, influence them to align their individual interests in favor of collective effort, and achieve success as a project team rather than as individuals.
Documented leadership styles range from autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, directive, participative, assertive, supportive, and autocratic to consensus. Of all these, no single leadership style has proven to be universally the best. Instead, effective leadership is shown when it best fits a given situation. For example:
In moments of chaos, directive action creates more clarity and momentum than collaborative problem-solving.
For highly competent and engaged staff environments, empowered delegation elicits more productivity than centralized coordination.
When senior managers struggle with priorities, neutral facilitation helps more than detailed recommendations. Effective leadership skills can be gained. They can be developed so that they become a professional asset to the individual, as well as a benefit to the project and stakeholders.
High-performing projects show a pervasive pattern of continuous improvement down to the personal level. A project team member deepens leadership acumen by adding or practising a combination of various skills or techniques, including but not limited to:
- Focusing a project team around agreed goals;
- Articulating a motivating vision for the project outcomes;
- Seeking resources and support for the project;
- Generating consensus on the best way forward;
- Overcoming obstacles to project progress;
- Negotiating and resolving conflict within the project team and between the project team and other stakeholders;
- Adapting communication style and messaging so that they are relevant to the audience;
- Coaching and mentoring fellow project team members;
- Appreciating and rewarding positive behaviors and contributions;
- Providing opportunities for skill growth and development;
- Facilitating collaborative decision making;
- Employing effective conversations and active listening;
- Empowering project team members and delegating responsibilities to them;
- Building a cohesive project team that takes responsibility;
- Showing empathy for project team and stakeholder perspectives;
- Having self-awareness of one’s own bias and behavior;
- Managing and adapting to change during the project life cycle;
- Facilitating a fail-fast/learn quickly mindset by acknowledging mistakes;
- Role modelling of desired behaviors.
Personal character matters in a leader. A person may have strong ability in leadership skills but then have their influence undermined by the perception of being self-serving or untrustworthy.
Effective leaders seek to be a role model in areas of honesty, integrity, and ethical conduct. Effective leaders focus on being transparent, behave unselfishly, and are able to ask for help. Effective leaders understand that project team members scrutinize and emulate the values, ethics, and behaviors that leaders exhibit. Therefore, leaders are more responsible for demonstrating expected behaviors through their actions.
Projects work best when leaders understand what motivates people. Project teams can thrive when project team members use appropriate leadership traits, skills, and characteristics that match stakeholders’ specific needs and expectations. Knowing how to best communicate with or motivate people, or take action when required, can help improve project team performance and manage obstacles to project success. When practised by more than one person on a project, leadership can foster shared responsibility toward the project goal, which in turn can foster a healthy and vibrant environment. Motivators include such forces as finances, recognition, autonomy, compelling purpose, growth opportunity, and personal contribution. Effective leadership promotes project success and contributes to positive project outcomes.
Project teams, individual project team members, and other stakeholders are engaged throughout a well-led project. Each project team member can focus on delivering results using a common vision and working toward shared outcomes. Effective leadership is essential in helping project teams maintain an ethical and adaptable environment. Additionally, business obligations can be fulfilled based on delegated responsibility and authority.
Shared leadership does not undermine or diminish the role or authority of a leader designated by the organization, nor does it diminish the need for that leader to apply the right leadership style and skills at the right time.
By blending styles, continuing skill growth, and leveraging motivators, any project team member or stakeholder can motivate, influence, coach, and grow the project team, regardless of role or position. Effective leadership ensures project success by connecting with stakeholders, communicating and listening effectively, delegating responsibility, understanding motivators, and leading by example.
In summary, strong leadership is critical to a project’s success. Leaders need to continually develop their skills to create a motivating environment that encourages collaboration and inspires team members to do their best work. A leader’s role includes setting expectations, creating trust between the project team and other stakeholders, adapting communication style appropriately, coaching and mentoring team members, delegating authority when appropriate, and exhibiting ethical behavior at all times. Leaders can ensure successful projects by demonstrating these behaviors as a role model for others on the team or stakeholder group.
The result of this is a project team that is empowered to take ownership, motivated by each member’s contributions toward achieving success. It ultimately has a greater chance of delivering successful outcomes. This is why strong leadership matters in successful projects.
Developing practical leadership skills at all levels of an organization can help ensure that projects are well-managed, resulting in a higher potential for successful project outcomes. Organizations should invest time and resources into developing and nurturing leaders with the traits and abilities necessary to make decisions that positively impact their teams and organizations. Whether it’s making tough decisions or providing guidance to team members, investing in strong leadership can bring great returns. Investing in yourself as a leader will be beneficial not only during your current project, but it will also benefit you in the long run. Finally, with strong leadership, projects can be successfully completed on time and under budget while making a measurable impact on the organization’s mission.
Strong leadership is essential to successful projects because it sets expectations, creates an environment of trust, and motivates team members to do their best work. Leadership comes in many forms and should be tailored to each project situation. Investing in people and providing them with the tools they need to succeed will help create the right conditions for success. It takes hard work and dedication but investing in strong leadership pays off. When effective leaders are paired with talented teams, successful outcomes are possible every time.
Author: Olena Kapitanenko
Project Lead, Business Process Analyst and Trainer