15 April, 2019

Project Leadership Wisdom: Your Guide to the Seven Pillars

There are plenty of smart project leaders. But what is far rarer, is project leadership wisdom.

Wisdom is hard to define. But we know it when we see it. Leadership wisdom is about the cluster of traits that people see in a leader that goes beyond getting things done.

If you have Project Leadership wisdom, then people will look to you for guidance and counsel across the widest range of situations. And they will trust you with the sensitive complex, and high profile projects that they know needs that depth of insight and steadiness of touch.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

So, in this article, I want to take a look at the substance of what Leadership Wisdom is, and how you can cultivate it.

Leadership Smarts and Leadership Wisdom

Without a doubt, project leaders need to be smart. You need to juggle different aspects of your leadership roles whilst retaining currency in all of your areas of technical expertise. You need to have answers – or be able to get them – and you need to motivate and direct the teams who follow you.

Project Leadership Wisdom

The Study of Leadership

Not surprisingly, the study of leadership is one of the biggest interest areas among academics, business people, public servants, trainers, and, of course, Project Managers. New ideas emerge every few years to dominate the debate for a while. And then the next one comes along.

We need these new approaches to handle changing pressures in civil, organizational, and project life:

  • The constantly accelerating pace of change driven by the growth of new technologies and, more important, the applications they are finding
  • New approaches to delivering projects and creating the change we are commissioned to deliver
  • The wider contexts in which project managers and our teams now have to operate, which are increasingly dispersed, and global in scope
  • New ways of working in all spheres of life from military to civilian, the social to the commercial, and from the sole practitioners to multi-nationals
  • Growing pressure for sustainability in everything we do and in all senses of the word
  • The complexity of the environment within which we operate, with ever more opportunities and inter-connectivity
  • And therefore the need to find the right focus for the finite resources by unscrambling from the complexity a sense of what really matters

Smart leaders will say that they are finding solutions to all of these challenges.

But is it enough to be smart?

It has always been the case that the leaders that society looks up to with the greatest respect have been labeled with the epithet ‘wise’. In turbulent times like these, when it sometimes feels like our generation truly holds the future in its hands, maybe it is time to go beyond smart.

Maybe our projects need wise leadership. Can we define project leadership wisdom and, more important, can we develop it?

What do we Mean by a Smart Project Leader?

Smart project leaders know how things work and how to get things done, with the resources at their disposal. They have learnt the rules – written and unwritten – and they know how to apply them. Sometimes, they know how to break them too.

  • But what if the rules don’t apply?
  • What if you don’t know them?
  • What if there are no rules at all?

Leading in that environment takes more: it takes wisdom.

The rules smart leaders follow have been covered in vast libraries of books, journals, training courses, and blog posts. My own contribution is to highlight what I consider the ‘four essentials’ of good project leadership.

If you don’t want to read the full article, here’s a summary…

Smart Leadership Essential Number 1: Individuals

A team is made up of individuals, And a smart project leader knows how to get the best from each one, by:

  • coming to respect them all for what they can contribute
  • stretching and developing them
  • recognizing their contributions

Smart project leaders learn what buttons to push, to win greater motivation and commitment. And they learn when to stop pushing.

They have also learned that the power of the team that follows them is in its diversity and they know how to harness that power, to achieve their goals.

Smart Leadership Essential Number 2: Plans

Project leaders need to generate everything from the vision for their project, through a clear plan, to working with their teams to ensure they follow every last detail of that plan is ready.

Plans give confidence and assurance, yet a smart leader also knows that they quickly become out of date unless the leader and their team remain alert to changes and are flexible in their approach.

Smart Leadership Essential Number 3: Teams

Creating a common sense of direction for the team is something smart leaders work hard on. This is true, whether it is a handful of individuals working together on a short project, or a dedicated team of professionals working on a multi-year mega-project.

They know when to generate creative tensions and when to unify with clear imperatives, and they can deploy numerous methods for building a cohesive, collaborative team spirit.

Smart Leadership Essential Number 4: Communication

All smart project leaders place a lot of weight on the importance of communication. They find out what works best in their context, and they work hard to hone their skills and create processes and a culture that enables everyone to communicate amongst them.

The exception to this, of course, is repressive leaders. I leave it to you to assess how smart they are being!

Smart Leadership Styles

Another aspect of smart leadership is the ability to select the right leadership approach for a situation. Smart leaders may:

  • focus on a visionary style or a democratic style
  • exercise a high degree of control or grant a big chunk of autonomy
  • step forward and become conspicuous or choose a less charismatic style of behind-the-scenes leadership
  • be supportive or directive or merely facilitative

We have an article (and a training program) that uses a powerful model of situational leadership to help you get the best from team members, depending on:

  • their abilities
  • their motivation, and
  • the context

The LEAD Framework for Smart Project Leadership

You may also like our article that uses LEAD as an acronym to remind you of four priorities for your Project Leadership.

What do we Mean by a Wise Project Leader?

So, with all of this good guidance about effective project leadership, what is the difference? How can we define Project Leadership Wisdom?

Wisdom requires the experience to understand the real world in all of its breadth and complexity. I’ll contrast this with the narrower context in which you grew smart.

A wise leader must develop a whole array of sustainable qualities that people will look up to. We regard these qualities, cumulatively, as components of a wisdom that we want to access and follow.

Seven Pillars of Project Leadership Wisdom

In my book, ‘Smart to Wise’ (US|UK), I identified seven pillars on which wisdom rests. These define, rather nicely, the characteristics of a wise leader. If you can develop yourself in these seven areas, people will increasingly start to perceive you as wise.

They also set out a syllabus for a learning journey that you can go on to develop wisdom in yourself. Smart to Wise does not set out to tell you what is wise, merely the places to look. It offers you a route to greater wisdom.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

In the seven sections below, I will contextualize the seven pillars for the domain of project leadership wisdom. For each, I will suggest one route to developing wisdom, from among many.


Self-mastery will always be an important aspect of wisdom and of leadership. When you can master your psychological, emotional, and physical self, it will manifest in higher levels of confidence, resilience, and health. This will give you the resources to handle setbacks and challenges, and to make effective choices in how you respond to charged situations. It will also help you to show your team the importance of looking after themselves.

It is impossible to develop self-mastery without a clear sense of how you come across to other people. Look for opportunities to get feedback – informal or structured – from the people around you to uncover some of the aspects of your personality that you are blind to. People to ask include:

  • Your sponsor
  • stakeholders
  • team members

Use this knowledge as the basis for further development.


Developing your ability to see past the surface layers of a complex project situation is vital for effective leadership. It takes keen observation of details and, since a project leader needs to focus a lot of your attention on people, a keen understanding of how we work.

Developing deep psychological insights into yourself and the people around you will enable you to read situations more accurately. This will enhance your perception of the wider context and of the deeper details, and therefore give you a better understanding of what is important and what things are secondary or peripheral.

This is vital in your ability to engage effectively with your stakeholders:

Whatever you are considering, get into the habit of examining it from a series of different perspectives before you try to make an assessment. For example, think:

  • telescope and microscope
  • human and rational
  • change and constancy

Use these different perspectives to build a more thorough understanding of a situation, rather than rushing towards judgment.


Leaders can never remain static. And one thing that characterizes every individual widely regarded as wise is the way they constantly grow and develop their thinking and understanding of the world.

As a project leader, you must commit to this for yourself, and also facilitate it in your team. Wise leaders feel a powerful drive to find new and better ways to understand their world, interpret events, and make changes to create new ways of doing things.

Contemplation and reflection are powerful ways to trigger personal growth. Taking time to do nothing else frees your mind of its routine busyness and so allows you to access lessons, understanding, and insights that have been developing quietly in the background processing of your unconscious mind.

This mirrors the way we feel at our most creative on quiet walks, in the shower, or at other ‘non-productive’ times. The creativity you are seeking here is the integration of new experiences into an evolved world-view.


Exemplary conduct must, of course be a given for a project leader. That said, the source of the standards against which people will measure exemplary differ from context to context and culture to culture.

We also expect our leaders to be visionary

But is this enough?

Wisdom lies in the ability to discern how a visionary insight can become a reality. We follow people when we believe that they can deliver their vision. This is what the ancient Greeks called ‘phronesis’, or practical wisdom.

And leadership by example

Exemplary leadership sets an example that others want to follow… ‘inspiring by doing’. Wise leaders know the importance of creating a succession of new leaders who can emulate, rise, and then evolve in their own way. Because leadership wisdom understands the criticality of building sustainable leadership.


Many of the world’s traditions view practicing generosity as a route to righteousness and wisdom. In projects, this is less about giving material support, but more about the personal support you give, in terms of time and commitment.

Perhaps the most powerful form of generosity for a leader to cultivate is spiritual generosity: the virtues of tolerance, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and selflessness. Those who are smart know how to look after themselves and, for those who are merely smart; this is often their first and only priority. Putting yourself to one side opens up the greater objectivity of leadership wisdom.


Governance is a vital aspect of project leadership. And decision-making is a core part of it.

Wise decisions need to be informed by a profound sense of purpose and a commitment to addressing priorities. Wise project leaders must be prepared to abandon past dogmas and engage in an open decision-making process, which is inquiry-led, rather than advocacy-led. This takes time. And good judgment includes the art of patience and the insight to know when the time is right.

The Importance of Reason

Reasoning well is an essential pre-requisite of good judgment, yet critical thinking is rarely taught in our schools. If you can adopt three values and then practice them and hone your skill and comfort levels with each, you will set yourself up for good judgment:

  1. Skepticism – This is a close ally of perception. It is the willingness to question everything with your mind open to surprise
  2. Rigor – This is your ability to assess all of the evidence on its merits and eschew familiar but dangerous shortcuts in the reasoning process
  3. Courage – This is being prepared to stand by your conclusions no matter how uncomfortable – and also to change them quickly in the light of new evidence, regardless of a perceived loss of face. It is a vital aspect of integrity


It is not enough to make wise judgments. How you implement them matters equally.

Equity and fairness arise from respect and wise leaders show that respect. If your leadership does not have an ethical or moral dimension, it can certainly produce smart outcomes, but can it ever be truly sustainable – let alone wise?

‘Parrhesia’ is the concept, from ancient Greece, of speaking without fear. Leadership roles will often require this kind of courage, especially when presenting uncomfortable truths to people with more power or authority than you.

However, the courage is not principally about diving in and responding boldly. It is more about facing up to the need to manage your emotional responses and to deal with theirs. Preparation is key, so project leaders need to practice delivering difficult messages with equanimity.


Authority has a special place in the leadership wisdom, as we’ll see later. Wise leaders create authority through engaging effectively with their supporters, their doubters, and the neutrals alike. This creates the perception in all of them that you are a leader who has a right to lead.

This needs to be especially true when the doubters remain unconvinced that the leader is right. I do not always have to believe you are right to perceive you as wise.


We communicate influentially when the impact of what we say increases in line with how much we communicate. When we bore people, the more we say; the less impact it has.

Wisdom allows us to have significantly greater impact with every small increase in what we communicate. Paradoxically, the wisest among us find that the less they say; the more impact they have. Silence can be a powerful influencer! Practice saying only what is really important: leave the rest for others to speak.

Leadership Wisdom and Authenticity

One of the most fruitful areas of research and discussion in the leadership arena over the last few years has been ‘Authenticity’. This is the idea that leaders must, first of all, be true to themselves.

It is hardly a new idea: Shakespeare said it well in Hamlet, when Polonius says to Laertes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3

So let’s see how the seven pillars of wisdom map onto Authentic Leadership.

Authenticity has two components:

  1. Personal authenticity
  2. Moral authenticity

Personal authenticity is allowing yourself to be yourself. The focus is on who you are and understanding your place in the world. Moral authenticity, on the other hand, is about the choices you make and how you act upon them. In terms of the seven pillars:

Personal Authenticity

= Self-mastery + Perception + Evolution

. . .

Moral Authenticity

= Judgement + Fairness + Conduct

This leaves us with one pillar of wisdom that is missing. Yet it is crucial to leadership: Authority.

Authority again…

Authority is the basis upon which others will grant you the right to lead. Without it, there can be no leadership. The form of authority you have will have a profound impact upon the style of your leadership:

  • hierarchical, or organizational, authority
  • moral authority
  • the authority of expertise, experience, or acumen
  • support from powerful individuals, or a large group

The Coming Leadership Challenges

In whatever domain you manage projects, you can anticipate that the coming challenges will make project leadership more difficult and complex. The model of leadership you adopt will become less and less the principle that will determine your success.

To face the challenges of delivering complex and important projects, you are increasingly going to need project leadership wisdom. You’ll need to be a project manager who can:

  • better understand yourself and your situation
  • constantly evolving your skills and insights
  • show consistent conduct is exemplary
  • exercise sound judgment is sound
  • be fair and bring people with you: whether they are your supporters or not.

How do you think project leaders shape up to these challenges?

How do you shape up to the challenge of Project Leadership Wisdom?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll respond to every comment you make.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Training Journal, March 2013

Never miss an article or video!

Get notified of every new article or video we publish, when we publish it.

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.
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Never miss an article or video!

 Get notified of every new article or video we publish, when we publish it.