19 September, 2022

LEAD Your Team: How to Use Your Top 4 Project Leadership Skills

When you are in a Project Leadership role, you have a lot to do. As well as managing your project day-to-day, you’re responsible for your people. They look to you for leadership and guidance. But, with so many responsibilities, it can be hard to know what your priorities are. So, we’ll focus on my top 4 project leadership skills. If you develop each of them, they will set you up to LEAD.

Your Leadership Priority is to LEAD

LEAD Your Team: How to Use Your Top 4 Project Leadership Skills

Often, it is the soft skills that are hardest to practice. Yet they regularly make the biggest difference. There is a well-established acronym, listing four vital soft skills. For me, it forms a great checklist and reminder of my top 4 project leadership skills.

And, in this article, I want to share that acronym with you, with some tips and tricks along the way. So, let’s dive straight in, with the four leadership priorities we are going to focus on. And to make them memorable, they spell out LEAD:

  • Listening
    Perhaps the primary communication skill. You need to pay attention to what your team members and stakeholders want and need to tell you.
  • Encouraging
    You are there for your team. So, you need to guide, support, and motivate them to perform at their best.
  • Asserting
    Fundamentally, a project manager is paid to deliver your project. This means you equally need to make things happen, give instructions, and speak without fear.
  • Deciding
    Projects are a series of choices. Each one opens up and shuts down opportunities. You have to figure out what is right, and set your team’s priorities.

Evaluate Your Project Leadership Skills:
How Well do You LEAD Today?

You might want to pause here for a moment and look at each of our top four project leadership skills. How would you rate yourself on each one?

I recommend you use a simple score out of 5 for each of them:

  1. No confidence at all / I almost never do this
  2. Low confidence / I do this a bit, and reasonably well
  3. Mid-level of confidence / I do this some of the time and fairly well.
  4. High level of confidence / I do this quite a lot and pretty well
  5. High level of confidence / I do his often and well

Score Yourself

Adding the figures together for your four leadership priorities will give you a Personal Leadership Score out of 20.

But, more importantly, the different scores in each section will help you recognize which of your leadership priorities you need to focus on.

Work on One Leadership Skill at a Time

Because these four project leadership skills are equally important, I recommend you start with the one that scored the lowest. If two scored equally low, then start with the one that appears first in the LEAD framework:

Listening before Encouraging before Asserting before Deciding

…because Leaders don’t Know Everything

The first of your top four project leadership skills is listening to what your team members and stakeholders want and need to tell you. Listening is the soul of good communication.

The challenge on a busy project is creating time to give your full attention to someone, and really hear what they want to tell you. Indeed, sometimes it can be tricky to help someone into the position of wanting to tell you what you need to hear.

The better you are at listening, the easier people will find it to speak with you.

Good listening is a learned skill

You may have been born being able to hear, but that doesn’t mean you were born a good listener. This is a skill you need to learn and practice. To listen well, you need to:

  • Set aside enough time and put other concerns to one side.
  • Turn to face the person you want to listen to.
  • Suppress that voice in your head that wants to plan your response to what you are hearing, while the other person is still speaking.
  • Avoid the temptation to judge the other person or their ideas until you have heard their perspective and what’s important to them.
  • Be confident that you don’t always have to make comments or give answers. The skill of good listening only needs you to ask questions and acknowledge what you are hearing.

Master the first of your project leadership skills, with…

I Beg Your Pardon: The Power of Listening: Listening Skills 101

I Beg Your Pardon… The Power of Listening

Communication makes up around 80 percent of the work of any manager and leader.

This makes listening your single most important skill. So in this course, we’ll look at why this is true, and seek to understand what listening really is.

But at the core of this powerful course, we’ll learn something nobody ever teaches at school – despite being so valuable… How to really listen.

And we’ll close by tackling the three main challenges every listener faces.

Ten Ways that Listening will Make You a Better Project Manager

Listening is nice. It’s soft and fluffy and everyone likes it.

But, why should it be one of your top project leadership skills? Well, there are plenty of good reasons. And here are ten of them:

  1. Understanding what your team members like, what they want, and what they are good at, will help you to serve them well, by allocating work at which they can thrive. This is an essential part of good team leadership.
  2. If you are able to accommodate your stakeholders’ needs and preferences, you will reduce the levels of resistance.
  3. And, if your stakeholders are resistant, listening to them will help you to handle their objections in a positive way.
  4. Indeed, listening is one of the key skills in the craft of persuasion and influence.
  5. Listening to concerns and feedback from team members and stakeholders can give you an alternative perspective on what you are doing, and therefore help you with both getting things done (asserting) and making decisions (deciding).
  6. Other people may spot risks and, listening to them will make you aware of threats you may otherwise have overlooked.
  7. You need feedback on your performance if you are to improve.
  8. And, of course, in giving feedback to team members, you need to be able to listen to them.
  9. More ideas and different perspectives will lead to more effective problem-solving, and better decisions.
  10. In conflict management, speaking can easily escalate things, but listening almost never does.

[thrive_text_block color=”note” headline=”OnlinePMCourses Video Training”]

We have video courses that will help you with different aspects of this:


…because Followers Want to Do Well

Your team members want to do their jobs well and develop their careers. And, it’s your job as a project leader to give them every possible opportunity to do this. There is no leadership without followers, so this must clearly be one of your top project leadership skills.

So, what are the main mechanisms for encouraging team members?

This is a big topic. And we have a big article with the catchy title of:

Project Team Motivation [Everything You Need to Know]

Do take a look at it.

Here, I want to focus on four aspects of everyday encouragement:

  1. Supporting people in their endeavors
  2. Recognizing their achievements
  3. Praising their successes, and
  4. Rewarding consistent excellence

Supporting people in their endeavors

The key word here is ‘support‘; not ‘smother‘. It’s a trap I’ve seen new and well-meaning project leaders fall into. They know support is important, but they offer too much. This can leave people feeling smothered. They believe they aren’t allowed to take the initiative and don’t feel trusted. It can also be time-consuming, robbing you of much of the time you need for other leadership priorities.

But, done well, your support can provide:

  • reassurance that the learning process your team members are going through is natural
  • mistakes they are making are an acceptable part of that learning
  • when we get things wrong, this does not diminish your faith in the individuals

Above all, team members want to understand what you expect of them, that you will back them up along the way, and – perhaps most important – the ‘why’ of what you are asking of them. If they don’t understand the purpose of what they’re doing, they will feel easily demotivated by the slightest setback. However, when people understand and appreciate the meaning behind their role, they are more resilient to setbacks and more ready to redouble their efforts when they make mistakes

Recognizing their achievements

Arguably, this is the most powerful workplace motivator – and de-motivator, if you get it wrong. There are two reasons for this, I think:

  1. We like to feel that we can master the skills we take on. Recognition provides us with an outside perspective on our progress.
  2. We are social beings. Recognition from our peers strengthens our confidence in our place in, and value to our group.

So, build recognition events into your regular project meetings. Give your team members a slot to describe their achievements and allow the team to recognize their contributions. This also provides a chance for the whole team to learn new ways of doing things better. By working together to embed good practices, you can move your whole team to a higher performance level.

Praising their successes

Some people thrive on criticism. They soak it up and come back fighting.

Others wither up. But…

Praise grows us; like water and sunlight grow a flower. Share on X

Perhaps the best way to motivate your team members in a flourishing project is to set them up to succeed, and then catch them doing it!

Setting lots of project milestones, and breaking big milestones down into smaller ones, will create more points where you can recognize and praise success.

Rewarding consistent excellence

Rewards are not, as people often think, the primary motivators at work. Especially in the form of financial payments and bonuses. It is the motivator of last resort.

Money has minimal impact on our motivation, as long as we feel we are being rewarded enough to satisfy two criteria:

  1. to meet our basic material needs and those of our dependents, and
  2. to be fair in the context of what others are rewarded for similar work.

But we do like rewards. And the ones that have the biggest effect are well-within your power as a project leader, even if you don’t have control over salary, perks and bonuses. Here are some rewards every project manager can offer their team:

  • Thanks
    When we get sincere appreciation from someone we respect, it is a powerful reward.
  • Opportunity
    Give people new opportunities to stretch themselves, learn, and develop. This has long-term career value.
  • Autonomy
    Offer more control over the work your team members do. It shows trust and confidence.

…because there are Tasks to Do

It’s easy to get caught up in the softer side of leadership and forget that sometimes, people want their leaders to guide them. To deliver a project, you need to balance two concerns:

  1. Concern for your relationship with, and the relationships among, your team, and
  2. Concern to achieve the task in your project plan.

We’ve addressed the relationship focus with our first two leadership priorities: Listening and Encouraging. The second two address the tasks at hand: Asserting and Deciding.

Asserting is the most tactical of our top 4 project leadership skills. It is directed at immediate action. On the other hand, Deciding is a more strategic skill and is about preparing for future action.

Sometimes your project team needs clear instructions from you.

This may be because:

  • they don’t know how to do something and you need them to do it correctly, quickly.
  • there isn’t time for them to figure it out for themselves.
  • they may not have the confidence
  • the cost of mistakes may be too high.

On the other hand, if the risk of failure is low, it is often better to give minimal direction. Let your team members figure things out for themselves. They’ll learn more that way. And if they get it wrong, they’ll learn even more.

Your leadership priority is not to prevent all failures. It is to manage the risks of failure, so the benefits of trying new solutions and opportunities for deeper learning are balanced against the potential costs of failure.

Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Behaviors

It is important to understand the relationship between three behaviors:

  • Passive
    Allowing others to put their priorities above yours
  • Aggressive
    Putting your priorities above those of everyone around you
  • Assertive
    Balancing your respect for your own needs and desires and those of other people

On our sister YouTube Channel, Management Courses, we have a whole course on Personal Impact. The second module of that course has three videos on Assertiveness.

…because Projects are a Series of Choices

I like to think of your decision-making priority as being the strategic aspect of your task focus. On projects, choices are as much about setting priorities from among competing possibilities, as about picking one ‘right’ answer over other ‘wrong’ answers.

And with so much change and uncertainty, you will need to make a lot of choices, throughout your project. That’s why I include decision-making among my top 4 project leadership skills.

To make a good decision, you’ll need to:

  • Know what is right – or best
  • Do what is right – or best
  • Know and do what is fair
  • Make your decision in an accountable and timely way

We’ve published two long articles on decision-making:

  1. The Essential Guide to Robust Project Decision Making
  2. Rapid Decision Making in Projects: How to Get it Right

So, we don’t need to discuss this in too much depth. But my key leadership tip is that good decision-making needs:

  • Time to think
  • Listening to diverse points of view
  • Access to the facts

A good leader will use their team to leverage their decision-making capacity.


Doing what is right is what often makes decisions difficult. And that’s when ‘right‘ and ‘fair‘ give the same answer. As a leader, one of your priorities has to be to understand your own values and make your decisions with integrity. Ultimately, you may use colleagues to help you understand your decisions, but you must always be prepared to take responsibility for the choices you make.

Making the decision in an accountable and timely way

A ‘good’ decision is not the same as a ‘right’ decision.

You can only know if a decision was the right one with the benefit of hindsight. But, you should be able to know whether you are making a good decision at the point of deciding. Therefore, if it is a good decision, it will also be the one with the best chance of turning out right. But, even if it turns out to be wrong, a good decision won’t stop being a good decision.

Five things make up a good decision:

  1. You use as much relevant information as you can get hold of. Balanced this against time pressures to ensure you make the decision in good time to implement it properly
  2. There is a thorough analysis of all of the information. You explore different perspectives and evaluate a range of options.
  3. The person or people who make the decision have the organizational authority to make it
  4. They also have the technical expertise to make an informed decision.
  5. The decision must be documented and communicated to people who need to know about it.

What are Your Own Top Project Leadership Skills?

I’ve outlined my own top four leadership priorities:

  1. Listening
  2. Encouraging
  3. Asserting
  4. Deciding

But I always want to learn from you, my readers. So let me know what your own top project leadership skills are, and how you implement them on your own projects. Use the comments section below, and I’ll respond to every contribution you make.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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