26 February, 2024

Three Project Leadership Challenges for Tough Times [and what to do]

In tough times, project management is not enough.  People get scared and uncertain. So they need leadership to keep them motivated, confident, and effective. In this article, we’ll look at three of the biggest project leadership challenges project managers face in tough times. What are they and, more importantly, how can you handle them effectively?

We will look at:

The Need for Project Leadership

#Projects do more than inhabit an environment: they create one. Click To Tweet

Projects have a powerful effect on the people, organizations, and processes that surround them.  The effects ripple outwards. This means that when a project starts to go wrong, many people are affected:

  • The Project Manager and your team
  • Your Project Sponsor and the project steering group or board that oversees the project,
  • User groups and business owners,
  • Suppliers, contractors, and technical experts, and
  • Stakeholders and bystanders.

So, in tough times, everyone needs good quality Project Leadership. Many years ago, I came up with the concept of ‘purple bus leadership’. I think this is what will take your project management to a higher level. And, when things get tough, it will mean people will feel confident in your leadership… They will feel safe in your hands.

Therefore, in tough times, Purple Bus project leadership becomes essential.

Purple Bus Leadership

Three Project Leadership Challenges for Tough Times [and what to do]
Three Project Leadership Challenges for Tough Times

A strong Project Leader needs to inspire and motivate their team to stay calm and continue to perform effectively in tough times, as well as manage them when they do.  To understand this, compare the drivers of two buses.

The Yellow Bus

People have to get onto the yellow bus to get to where they need to go.  The driver makes sure the bus is safe and well-maintained. And the yellow bus driver knows the route and is careful to drive safely. Before setting off, the yellow bus driver welcomes the passengers.

If the yellow bus breaks down on the way, the passengers are confident that their driver will know what to do.  But at the same time, they cannot help but feel concerned about whether they chose the right bus. Will it be able to get them where they need to go? And will they get there on time?

The Purple Bus

People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. It sounds like a great place to go, and the driver seems like someone they trust to choose a great route, and get them there safely. When you get on, the purple bus driver welcomes you personally.

Once on the bus, they enjoy the journey and find it stimulating.  They like the driver so, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help fix it.  They are confident that the driver is in control and they are keen to learn what they can do to help. Then, they willingly share the work, to get back underway.

What kind of Project Leader are You?

The yellow bus driver represents technical and managerial competence. But the purple bus driver brings more: inspiration, loyalty, and individual attention. For anything but the simplest projects, I think we need the purple bus driver’s style of Project Leadership. It creates a more self-confident and resilient project team, where people are more motivated to work on their projects. And if things do go wrong, your team is better prepared to work together to find solutions.

Three Project Leadership Challenges in Tough Times

No matter how good your leadership is, if you take on challenging projects, you will face tough times. With a strong team, whose loyalty you’ve earned, you can achieve a lot. But this does not mean it will be easy, and as leaders, we must often bear a large part of the stress.

This places a big premium on your ability to cope well under pressure. Project Leaders face three particular challenges in tough times:

  1. Resistance from people who have perceived and legitimate concerns
  2. Dealing with problems and adverse circumstances
  3. Staying tough when you’d rather just quit

Let’s look at these three personal project leadership challenges.

Project Leadership Challenge 1: Meeting Resistance and Handling it Gracefully

Projects are about creating change. And in times of change, resistance is inevitable.  Dealing positively with that resistance is a great enough challenge at the best of times, but when you are under pressure, it can feel as if the whole world is against you.

Consequently, your first instinct will be to either shut yourself off from the resistance and ignore it, or become combative and fight against it. This is the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Overcoming this and handling resistance resourcefully is one of the greatest challenges of project leadership.

Therefore, Project Leaders need to understand the psychology of resistance. You must be able to diagnose the types of resistance that you encounter, understand why you are getting it, and have a toolbox of resources to help you engage with it constructively. As you deal with each layer of resistance, you are likely to find more beneath it.  That’s why I call this the ‘Onion Model of Resistance’.

The Onion Model of Resistance: An Introduction to the Levels of Resistance

Although resistance can take many forms, it tends to sit at one of five levels, with the most fundamental being:

I don’t understand why we need to change.’

Here, the resister is unaware of the external pressures for change. They are therefore, quite reasonably, questioning why you are investing time, effort, and resources in making a change at all.  This is nothing more nor less than the old refrain: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Your response, therefore, should be obvious. You need to demonstrate those external pressures and show that not changing is not a credible option.

As we go down through the levels, the resistance gets hotter and more complex to handle.  At this first level, you need to make the evidence of the need for change clear, finding the best way to represent it so that your resister can understand and internalize it.  At the next level, you are going to have to work harder.

Next is level two, where you are likely to hear something more like this:

‘I don’t understand why this change.’

Now the resister gets the need for change, but fails to see how or why your project is the right response. So you must handle this by showing that the solution you are offering is right for the circumstances and outperforms other, competing, options. So far, you should be working from a well-developed argument that you have laid out in your Business Case. But now things start to get harder, as you get to level three.

‘I don’t like this change.’

This is the level that will most test your project leadership. It may not be the hottest and hardest level… But it is often the one that matters the most. And there are two ways this can happen.

The obvious is where some stakeholders find the change affects them adversely. Of course they don’t like it! Nor should they. All you can do is act with integrity. Validate their understanding and, if they are right, deploy whatever support you can. Never lie to them. It’s tempting to use easy, comforting platitudes, like; ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be alright.’ Don’t. They are weak at best and a lie at worst. Look your stakeholders in the eye and be honest with them.

The second reason for the ‘I don’ like change’ resistance has nothing to do with how the change may affect your stakeholders. Instead, they’ve looked at what you are trying to do – or how you plan to do it – and they have seen a problem. They know something you don’t. And the project leaders who try to brush their concerns under the carpet are, once again, weak at best. At worst, you will be irresponsible. If they are right, listening to their concerns and evaluating them objectively may be the best choice you can make for this project.

‘I don’t like change.’

It continues to get tougher, and now you hit on people’s fear of change. And we all have it, so this is inevitable too. Here, you need to show real leadership and inspire confidence that people can not only survive the changes, but thrive. Project Leadership is often about the inspirational motivation of stakeholders as well as team members. A weak response is to focus solely on skills training. A strong response is to listen carefully to find out what people’s fears are. And then to work with them to allay those fears and leave people confident that they can cope with the changes, and take advantage of them.

The final layer is tougher still. There is, by the way, one more layer that we won’t be looking at. It is toxic and, I hope, unusual in your organization. For our purposes, the fifth level is shocking enough.

‘I don’t like you

Don’t worry. This is rarely personal. This layer of resistance is usually about history. The stakeholder has had a bad experience in the past and now you remind them of that experience. This is about what you represent in their mind. So you need to work hard to show true project leadership that demonstrates a depth of integrity that leaves stakeholders trusting that you won’t deal with them in the way that left them angry or upset before.

Mike Clayton's Onion Model of Resistance

You can learn more about this model in my books:

Project Leadership Challenge 2: Up against it. How to Make a Measured Response under Pressure

As a Project Leader, you will encounter a host of challenging situations that will test your resolve, your creativity, and your coping skills. We’ll look at your coping skills in the next section, as Challenge 3. Here, we’ll focus on slowing down and responding wisely, while you under the pressure of time.

When something goes wrong, a knee-jerk reaction is rarely effective and never wise.  Instead, project leaders should slow down and become more measured. To help you, I have developed the SCOPE process. You can deploy this in any situation, to take control of your response to a problem, a question, conflict, or a threat you perceive.

The SCOPE process is a five-step process for mentally regaining control of a situation that feels out of your control.


Mentally and physically pause.  Use this to avoid rushing in with a knee-jerk response that may make things worse. It will help calm you and give you time to organize your thinking and steady your emotions.


Seek out all relevant facts that will help you understand the situation and its potential consequences. Ask questions, rather than make statements. Where the challenge comes from a person, it may be either a threat of conflict or simply a tough question. In either case, asking questions can slow things down, defuse tension, and increase your chances of a productive response.


Identify alternative options for how to respond. Then evaluate each option against potential consequences.  Then select your course of action.


Now act decisively. Give your answer, or take action.


The mistake most people make is to finish with the previous step. But what if you got it wrong? Review the outcomes of your choices against your evaluation. If you are not getting the results you expected, Stop – Clarify, select a new Option, …and continue.

The SCOPE Process will help you respond to sudden #Project challenges. Click To Tweet

Project Leadership Challenge 3: Staying Tough. How to Cope under Pressure.

Perhaps the biggest Project Leadership challenge in tough times is to remain tough yourself.  By ‘tough’, I don’t mean ‘hard’ or even ‘assertive’. I meant resilient.

For me, resilience marks an important difference between a capable project leader and a great project leader.  When things go wrong, resilient project leaders start to shine.  An aura of confidence and optimism draws people towards them, inspires trust and confidence, and creates a willingness to follow.

Maintaining your resilience requires both mental and physical discipline.  You won’t be able to take the objective, partially detached perspective you will need, if you are tired, mentally drained and physically exhausted.  Adrenalin will help, but followers need to see calm at the centre of the storm. So here are some top tips for how to create the basis for resilience in the teeth of adversity.

Stay optimistic

Look at the opportunities and resources you have available to you with a positive eye. Be thankful for the people and resources you have, and keep your focus on what you need to achieve.  In the face of setbacks, acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them.  Learn the lesson and move on to the next thing.

Remember, ‘glass half full optimism’ is merely a choice. But the deep optimism that comes from knowing what you want and being confident that you can create it is sustaiable and infectious.

Suppress the temptation to blame

Whether you aim it at yourself or other people; blame serves no purpose.  People know what they have done – the thing that matters is to overcome the problem. And all blame will do is foster fearfulness at a time when you most need courage. one of my favourite quotes comes from the movie, Papillon. It is said by Dustin Hoffman’s character, Leon Dega:

‘Blame is for god and small children.’

As a Project Leader, you’re neither!

'Blame is for god and small children.' from Papillon. #PMOT Click To Tweet
Blame is for God and Small Children
Blame is for God and Small Children

Be objective

Look at the evidence of what has happened as objectively as you can. Avoid the temptation to let false, limiting, or magical beliefs cloud your judgement.  Acknowledge your beliefs about events, and then challenge them robustly, by testing them against all of the evidence, before you act on them.  At stressful times we tend to personalise adversity, or focus on one causal factor – which may not be the most significant, if it is relevant at all. Sometimes we get a stream of bad luck. There are two plausible for this:

  1. coincidence
  2. an error or failure somewhere

What is not likely is that the universe is somehow conspiring against you, you are a bad person, or you deserve it. Look for a systematic error or failure, and if you can’t find one, recognize that sometimes coincidences do happen. The roulette wheel does sometimes come up red several times in a row.

Take care of yourself

Project Leadership is hard work that can consume all your energy and attention. But be sure to make time for good quality food, sufficient exercise, and plenty of rest. This way, when a crisis hits, your batteries have reserves of energy.  If the crisis continues, then make sure you recharge those batteries from time to time. Rushed junk food, late nights and early starts, and a lack of exercise is not a lifestyle you can sustain, and still continue to lead effectively.

As they say in airline safety announcements: fix your own oxygen mask before you try to help the people near you.

There’s more on this in our feature article ‘What to do if you’re Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project’.

Your Turn

What are the biggest project leadership challenges you’ve faced?

Or what challenges worry you most?

Tell us in the comments section below, and I’ll respond to every comment. If you hit on a big challenge, I’ll even write an article about it!


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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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