Friday, March 17, 2023

A Masterclass in Leadership: Leadership, Leadership Levels, Leadership Styles and Qualities for Project Managers

We need a leader. Courageous, self-sacrificing people, setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a leader, people line up for ’em, cheer for ’em, scream their names, and years later tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who told them to hold on a second longer.

– From the movie, Spiderman 2

The above, slightly paraphrased quote comes from the Spiderman 2 character, Aunt May, an old, frail-looking, but very warm, kind, and gutsy woman. She taught the young, down, and dejected Peter (Spiderman) the basics of leadership. One important part in the quote is courage.

Consider a big-budget movie being produced with hundreds of staff working on it. There are multiple managers also putting forth their best efforts, but many think the movie will not succeed in the market.

A leader is one who stands in front of everyone and calls out, “Wrong movie!” It takes courage to say that. Imagine the opposition and backlash. Some managers may negate it, or even scoff at it and indicate they are making progress. But what is the meaning of “progress” if you are building the wrong product?!

Leaders will have a vision and long-term goals, with which they are able to foresee how things will play out. Managers execute that vision. Leaders don’t always know the terrain, hence they navigate with something like a compass. Managers have to know the terrain, and hence, need to use maps. Leaders constantly monitor the environment and change directions. They are change agents. Managers use roadmaps and follow directions. They are change adaptors.

So, there’s a difference between managers and leaders?

I see it this way. Every leader has management capabilities. But every manager doesn’t have leadership capability. A truly good manager is also a very good leader. Management is about meeting objectives, whereas leadership is about purpose, passion, and enabling people to be successful.

With this background in mind, let’s turn to project management and start with the definition of a project manager (PM). In this article, I’d like to explore how leadership can transform management roles.

Project Manager as the Leader

I define a project manager as follows:
A project manager is an individual on the project formally assigned to lead the project team in order to meet the project objectives.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) in its definition also emphasizes leadership aspects, and I quote: The project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the project team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.

Did you notice the underlined emphasis? It’s not about managing the project team, but about leading the team.

We can see that the leadership aspect is very important. I define leadership for project managers as follows:

Leadership is the capability to influence people through inspiration toward the desired outcomes of the project.

Why is this needed? Projects are unique endeavors and unlike operations, where roles and responsibilities are often established. Because of this unique, cross-functional, and sometimes even cross-organizational nature, projects demand a unique need: effective leadership.

This article focuses on PMs, but the content can very well be applied to a variety of management roles and spheres of life. In fact, many executives show a complete lack of leadership, though they may be very efficient managers.

Notice the term “efficient” being used for managers. Leadership is not about efficiency, but about effectiveness. Management is about hands (efficiency), whereas leadership is about heart (effectiveness). To understand this aspect more, let’s see the differences between management and leadership.


Leadership Vs. Management *** UPDATED ***
As we have seen, the project manager is the leader of the team. This is irrespective of the organizational structure. However, leadership and management are not the same.

Management involves directing the team to move from one point to another with a known set of expected behaviors. Leadership is not about directing, but about guidance with discussion and dialogue (not debate) from one state to another.

The comparison table below notes a few more differences between management and leadership.

Now, you may be wondering how one can have such diverse thinking and such a leadership mindset at the same time? The key is finding a balance based on the situation and the context.

Authority Vs. Leadership *** UPDATED ***
In many cultures, leadership directly equals authority. Command and control is the only way to get things done.

Putting that into an organizational perspective, line or functional managers mostly follow one leadership style: command and control (autocratic), because they control salaries and raises.

However, as a project manager, most of the time, you won’t have this form of formal or positional power with its uses and/or parenthetical abuses. The best thing to do in such a case is to recognize that leadership is not authority.

Authority is given to a person by formal means, document, or title, but the following is also true:

  • Authority may not motivate. If that were the case, every country would produce a hundred Olympic gold medalists. Does that happen?
  • Authority doesn’t mean expertise. A person with high expertise, knowledge, and skills is, in fact, more followed than one with authority.
  • Authority doesn’t mean respect. Intrinsic respect from one’s heart is different from enforced respect.
  • Authority doesn’t imply trust. People may comply with authority, but don’t always commit to it.

So, what should one do? I’ll outline two things I have learned:

  • Recognize that the best form of power is not formal. It is expert power, relational power, and persuasive power, among others. Such is exercised mostly through inspiration, because your actions - not words - inspire others to dream, act, and be more.
  • Understand that leadership styles can vary. It’s best to apply leadership styles based on context and situation. We will review several leadership styles in a moment.

Leadership Growth Levels
*** UPDATED ***
The growth levels of leadership are depicted in the below figure. This is based on my research, experience, and over a decade of interactions with thousands of managers. You may be seeing it for the first time. It is taken from my new course: A Masterclass in Leadership.

The lower levels of leadership are Positional (Level-1/L1) and Relational (L2). At L3, Inspiration, you have started to truly move up. When you deliver results (L4), you are established as a leader. The higher levels of leadership are Mission (Purpose), and Passion. The highest level is Culmination (L7), which very few reach.

Siddhārtha Gautama, known worldwide as the Buddha, the self-awakened and enlightened one, was one such leader in spiritual dimension. The teachings of leaders at the highest-level echoes in eternity.

Such a leader doesn’t want to be photographed everywhere, but people want to be photographed with the leader. The leader doesn’t put his picture everywhere, but people carry his picture and frame it inside their homes. The leader doesn’t pay the media to promote him or her 24*7 as we see today, but people come voluntarily to listen as they can smell: a real change is in the air.

I’d also like to say the best leaders are finally invisible. This type of leader is not seen but felt because he has enabled other leaders!

Leadership Styles
Various leadership styles are noted and described in the below table:

So, which leadership style is the best?

My answer to that is: not one in particular, as leadership style depends on a variety of factors. Sometimes, you may have to combine multiple leadership styles.

A Leadership Style Exercise
Let’s do an exercise to understand leadership styles better. In the below table, we have a number of situations. Think about which leadership style fits the particular situation.
The answers are explained in the below video [Duration: 04m:52s], which I’ve prepared in support of this article. The content of it is taken from my leadership course. Additional explanations and new leadership styles are also provided. For a better audio-visual experience, you may want to go full HD and plug-in your earphones.

Conclusion *** UPDATED ***

Before I sign off, I want to mention some frequent questions that come up regarding leadership.

Why does leadership fail?

One key reason is that leaders don’t follow their own preaching! The leader must role model the behavior he or she is expecting from others. It’s the ‘setting examples for all’ part in the opening quote.

How does one become a leader?

Also from Aunt May:

“I believe there’s a hero (leader) in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most.”

An oft-ignored leadership quality is sacrifice. As a leader, you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to give a lot without expecting anything in return. Managers don’t sacrifice, but for a leader it’s a must.

Many don’t understand the importance of sacrifice. This is important because to get you must give first. It’s paradoxical, but true. But how many of the currently “supposed leaders” do that? You know the answer! You see, true leadership is exceptionally hard.

As Aunt May rightly tells, the hero is inside you. A leader is also inside you. Search for that leader, and when you discover it, nurture and expand it with the levels and styles we have reviewed. The path may be long and arduous. Sometimes you might stumble or even fall. But, if you are true to your heart, you are unlikely to be disappointed with the result.

I wish you all the very best in your journey and welcome your thoughts and comments. 


This article was first published by on 13th September, 2022. This is an updated version.

[1] NEW Course: A Masterclass in Leadership, by Satya Narayan Dash

[2] A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, by Project Management Institute

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