3 July, 2017

How Personal Leadership can Get You Better Project Results

By Mike Clayton

Leadership, management, motivation, Personal Leadership, project leadership

In our previous article, we looked at everything you need to know about project team motivation. But what about motivating individuals within the team? That comes down to personal leadership.

Personal Leadership is all the day-by-day acts of leadership that inspire your team members to follow you. It leaves people motivated, enthusiastic, and keen to follow you. Personal leadership raises morale and builds loyalty. In a project environment, you often have little formal authority. So, it is personal leadership that creates the basis for authority through influence, trust, and commitment.

The Four Parts of Personal Leadership

Get Better Project Results with Personal Leadership
Get Better Project Results with Personal Leadership

There are a lot of aspects to good personal leadership. So, to create some structure, we’re going to divide the topic into four parts:

  1. Your Personal Style
    This is where you show your character, because it’s about the big principles by which you lead people. So, for me, this must be your first priority.
  2. How You Manage
    You need to get the work done. But how you do this will determine people’s willingness and motivation… And also the performance levels they’ll achieve.
  3. Meeting Professional Needs
    The people you are leading want to develop themselves and their careers. So, leadership must be about more than transactional day-to-day management.
  4. Meeting Psychological Needs
    At the risk of overlapping our previous article, let’s end with some of the individual needs you must pay attention to, if you want to get the best from an individual.

Each of these is a big topic, so there is a lot for us to cover.

We won’t waste any time, then. Let’s get started..

Bring Your Personal Style to Your Leadership

'Character is destiny' - Heraclitus - as true for a #Project Manager as for anyone else. Click To Tweet

Character is destiny, said Heraclitus of Ephesus. Your personal qualities,and therefore your reputation, will profoundly affect where you end up.

So, getting your personal style right is your first priority, as a Project Manager, as a professional, and as a leader.

Be a Human

Project Management is often a technical discipline. It can encourage us to become over focused on the tasks, and the underlying technologies. Neither of these inspire people, so you must bring your humanity to bear.

There are two parts to this:

  1. First, you must be personable. That is, someone your colleagues can relate to on a human level.
  2. Second, you must do right by your people, making judgments that they will respect, and which respect them.

Be personable

This starts with getting to know everyone on your team as an individual. This is pretty simple. The challenge is to make as much time for the people you don’t naturally mesh with, as for those you find easy to like.

Then, you need to make yourself available. At one point on a project, I made myself a sign for my desk…

It's OK to Disturb Me

I wanted my team members to feel they could come to me at any time, and know that I’d give them my attention. Being available to your team must be your default position: that’s your job.

Another aspect of being human is showing your emotions. This is a fine balance, because your team members will take their emotional cue from you.  So, it’s vital to remain positive and optimistic about the future, in the face of setbacks and difficulties. But nobody wants to be led by an emotionless robot. So allow your emotions out – just keep the negative emotions at a lower register.

Above all, you must always show respect for the people you lead. Respect them for what they contribute, rather than deprecate people for the things they don’t do. Treat everyone well, and cultivate a courteous manner with people, which shows that you respect them. If anyone’s performance drops below your expectation, or their behavior is not what it should be, it is fine to reprimand and correct. But, whilst it’s fine to challenge that behavior, do so in a way that shows you still respect the person.

Always separate performance and behavior from the person. Respect them even when you don't like what they do. Click To Tweet

Do Right by Your People

What Project Managers need to ask of people is often hard. You need a lot of work, and sometimes long hours. So you need to be prepared to repay that with a generous sprit. Rather than be bound by formal rules or expectations, look for ways to act that delight your team members and make their lives as easy as possible. Don’t quibble when someone needs to leave early. Keeping them their will only secure minimal commitment if they stay. Instead, send them off with your blessing. Look for opportunities to help out in practical ways.

Lead by example

This last thought is a case of leading y example. You want people to commit to your project, and help one-another to succeed. So you need to do just that, yourself.

The behaviors you display, will rub off on your team, and set the culture.

The alternative is to always go home early, leaving your team to finish their work. Or to take long lunches, create substandard work, or speak disrespectfully about your stakeholders. What you do is what your team will learn to do.

Nowhere is this more important than the need to show integrity. Be honest, be open, and meet your commitments.

Say what you mean

If you want to lead, you need to be honest with people, and transparent about your intentions.Any game-playing will alienate your team, who will wonder if they can trust you. The more open your style of personal leadership, the easier it will be for your team to trust you, and the faster they will understand issues and be able to resolve problems.

Deal fairly with people

One thing is likely to erode motivation faster than anything else: the feeling of unfairness. Treat everyone fairly.

This does not mean ‘treat everyone the same’. People are different; with different needs, desires, strengths, and preferences. Understand these and address them in a way people want.

Do what you say

Never make a commitment or promise you can’t or don’t intend to honor. You will lose trust very quickly that way.

'You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do' - Henry Ford Click To Tweet

So, to earn the respect of your team, get a reputation for following through on the things you say you will do.


Communicating well is a central part of personal leadership. It has three components:

  1. Making sure each person knows what they need to know.
    They need to be able to do their job well. And they also want to feel well-informed about what’s going on around them. So, in principle, only withhold project information that is sensitive or confidential.
  2. Learning from each person, what they know, and what they are doing
    Your team members are at the forefront of your project. So, you need to learn from them. And, they are having successes, challenges, and setbacks. How can you recognise the work, help them with their challenges, and support them through setbacks, unless you are listening to their experience.
  3. Creating an environment of shared communication
    If you become the hub of all project communication, then if you are away, the project will quickly fail. So ensure team members communicate with one-another. Be a role model for good personal communication. Adopt effective practices in using phone, messaging, email, and other communications media.

To make this work, you need to be accessible – available to your team when they need you. It may be advice they want, instructions, or just a friendly ear. By all means establish boundaries, but when your on the job, you need to be accessible.

In Control

You team will look to you for answers. That’s what personal leadership means to many people. So you are going to have to make decisions. Here, lies a paradox.

You need to be decisive. When a decision is needed, delay can be costly. It’s part of your job to quickly assess a situation and direct the next actions.

But what if you don’t have the answer? Should any answer do, to keep momentum going and inspire confidence?

No. You won’t have the answer for everything. If you did, you’d either be a genius or, more likely, often wrong. So, not knowing is perfectly okay. Don’t bluff. Instead, use it as an chance to show the process for effective problem solving.

You aren't the #project leader because you know all the answers: but because you know how to find them. Click To Tweet

Personal Leadership: How you Manage 

Personal leadership and managing people go hand-in-glove. Your ability to manage team members well, will be a measure of your leadership effectiveness. So let’s overview the essentials of good people management.

The Principles of Good People Management

Here are eight fundamental principles of good people management. Because this is a big topic in its own right, we’ll only be scampering through it in broad terms.

Set Clear Goals

People need to know what you expect of them, and when. Your team members will want to do well. So the more clearly you can spell out what success will look like, be better they will be able to focus their efforts on delivering it.


People need support in their work, but how much varies from person to person, and from role to role. If you can assess how confident they are, and how much enthusiasm they have, you can gauge how much support will let them feel safe, without feeling stifled.


Equally, different people need varying amounts of direction, in different situations. Give enough direction to be sure that what they do is safe, but not so much that you rob them of their ability to learn, to feel trusted, and develop confidence. Remember, your objective is not to prevent mistakes. We often learn best from our errors. Rather, your job is to prevent the wrong mistakes: ones that are too costly, or would offer no chance of learning.


Decide how much authority you are going to grant each person to do their tasks in the way they choose. This is part of your risk management. More autonomy and greater freedom of choice should reflect lower risk, and higher levels of competence.


Remember though: as Project Manager, you have ultimate responsibility. Personal Leadership means staying in touch with the work, so you can oversee it at the level of detail and frequency that the risk demands.


For motivation, the key part of the management cycle is your recognition of the commitment, effort, learning, and results you see. There are veryfewpeople who don’t need this kind of recognition, and even they will feel good when they get it.


Another responsibility s to help people learn and develop their skills. Feedback is the way you adjust behavior for the future. Where you see sub-standard performance, weight your feedback towards essential corrections, and balance it with appreciation for progress, effort, and commitment. When performance is acceptable or better, start to ignore minor errors, and focus on successes, and why they matter. Help people to figure out ways to build what they learn into future practice.

Celebrate success

Celebration focuses us on our success, building confidence and thus enhancing future performance. You rarely need anything more elaborate than sharing how you feel about it, and thanking your colleague personally. Better still though, share your thanks with other people – especially anyone that colleague looks up to, like their line manager.

Management Styles

Coaching, guiding, mentoring

My own preferred style of management starts from here: providing support to each team member’s learning process. My goal is to help them develop in a way that suits their preferences and priorities.

This works well with another principle I value:

No Micro-management

Not only is this disrespectful, it is a poor use of your time, as Project Manager. If a member of your team needs a lot of support and guidance, then if possible, allocate a more experienced colleague to mentor them. A solid briefing and appropriate monitoring regime is what you need, not constant interference. Micro-management tends to demotivate, by showing almost no trust in the person’s ability.

Don’t punish failure

Fear is a strong motivator, but a poor way to build a committed and capable team. Create opportunities to succeed, and ensure the opportunities to fail are limited to the right scale of risk. If you this aspect of your job properly, then failure is as much your fault…

So treat failure as a chance to help people learn

Demonstrate your knowledge and experience

People value credibility and they want to look up to leaders who have it. Bt, as we discussed bove, you won’t always have all the answers – and no should you.

So also get good at asking questions. You can demonstrate real insight by asking good questions. Use this approach to:

  • Help people learn, by directing their attention
  • Understand uncertainty and complex situations
  • Test ideas and possible solutions

By the way, while we are on the subject of asking questions, this is the best way to gauge the mood of your team members.

Be flexible

Of course we respect perseverance, but if you cannot show yourself as adaptable in the face of changing circumstances, you will create rigid behaviors on your team.  Be flexible in the way you lead each individual, and adapt to their personality, capabilities, and their mood on the day.

Meeting Professional Needs

First of all, find out what each person needs. And the best way to do that, is to ask them, and listen carefully to their responses.

Learning and moving towards mastery

One of the big motivators we discussed in the previous article is the desire to attain mastery in our work. As a personal leader, you should be able to show them their path. How will they acquire and hone new skills? And how will those capabilities help them to develop their careers as professionals and future leaders?


Help your colleagues to address weaknesses that will seriously limit their performance and therefore their professional development. This will be a hard journey for both of you, so look on it as a significant investment.

If they do mess up, don’t just point it out and tell them what they should have done. Treat it as a learning opportunity and help them to assess what they did wrong. Then work with them to help them figure out what they can do to improve their skills and not make the same mistake again.

However, it is far easier to help people build upon existing strengths.


We build muscle by pushing them to their limits and through repetition. The same approach works with professional skills. Stretch your people out of their comfort zone. The alternative is to leave them safely there, where they risk stagnation, and sinking into the complacency zone, where they will make silly mistakes that can have costly consequences.

Zones of Performance
Zones of Performance


To make the stretch work, hold your team members accountable. This makes them feel personally engaged with your project and its success. As a result, they will want to find solutions to problems and master their skills.

Pride In their Work

Building a pride in the work team members take on is another goal of personal leadership. Three ways I’d suggest are:

Welcome volunteers

Welcome and encourage any involvement at any level. Make people feel like volunteering is setting themselves up for learning, success, and recognition, rather than unrewarded extra work. Make them feel like they are part of the future, with a stake in the outcome. Not only does this help your project, but it also prepares them for a larger meaningful role on their next project.


Encourage and celebrate excellence. Bt of course, don’t allow this to go too far, into ‘gold plating’ of perfectly adequate deliverables. Define excellence as a precise match to the required quality standard. Then measure against this and recognise, reward, and celebrate achievement.


Encourage innovative solutions and creative thinking. Set up formal and informal opportunities for brainstorming and other creative approaches, and recognise and celebrate it when team members initiate creativity themselves. Its as important too, to avoid punishing failure. Instead, use it as a chance to celebrate the intention to excel.

Meeting Psychological Needs

We will end with four of my favorite psychological needs that personal leadership can readily attend to.


Let every team member know why the project is valuable, and help them to find how that purpose resonates with them. We all want to make a difference with our work, and the projects’s purpose will help us find what it means to us.


We have a need to be in control of ourselves, our choices, and our environment. So find ways to give each project team member a degree of autonomy to direct their own work. Give them choice over how and when they do their allotted tasks, within the framework of your project plan, and the need to comply with any standards or procedures. Equally, make them responsible for managing the risks associated with their work and their choices.


Flow is the state of mind we get into when we are totally absorbed by a task. It occurs when the task takes us into our stretch zone, and we are clear what its goal is. You can see flow as the exact opposite of boredom. Boredom is a motivation-killer.


Finally, we don’t always need a reward for doing our job, nor even for doing it well. But we do always need people around us to recognise what we have done.

What is Your Advice?

What is your advice on creating excellent personal leadership?

Having been led, what has most inspired you? Or what has demotivated you?

And, as a leader, what have you found that has worked? Or what mistakes have you made.

Please share your thoughts below. I promise to respond to any comments we receive.


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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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