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Top 10 Qualities of a Project Manager

~ By Timothy R. Barry

Project manager characteristics and qualities concept on a white background

What qualities are most important for a project leader to be effective? Over the past few years, the people at ESI International, world leaders in project management training, have looked in to what makes an effective project leader.

With the unique opportunity to ask some of the most talented project leaders in the world on their Project Leadership courses ESI have managed to collect a running tally on their responses. Below are the top 10 in rank order according to frequency listed.

Inspires a Shared Vision

An effective project leader is often described as having a vision of where to go and the ability to articulate it. Visionaries thrive on change and being able to draw new boundaries. It was once said that a leader is someone who lifts us up, gives us a reason for being and gives the vision and spirit to change. Visionary leaders enable people to feel they have a real stake in the project. They empower people to experience the vision on their own. According to Bennis They offer people opportunities to create their own vision, to explore what the vision will mean to their jobs and lives, and to envision their future as part of the vision for the organisation. (Bennis, 1997)

Good Communicator

The ability to communicate with people at all levels is almost always named as the second most important skill by project managers and team members. Project leadership calls for clear communication about goals, responsibility, performance, expectations and feedback.

There is a great deal of value placed on openness and directness. The project leader is also the team's link to the larger organisation. The leader must have the ability to effectively negotiate and use persuasion when necessary to ensure the success of the team and project. Through effective communication, project leaders support individual and team achievements by creating explicit guidelines for accomplishing results and for the career advancement of team members.


One of the most important things a project leader must remember is that his or her actions, and not words, set the modus operandi for the team. Good leadership demands commitment to, and demonstration of, ethical practices. Creating standards for ethical behaviour for oneself and living by these standards, as well as rewarding those who exemplify these practices, are responsibilities of project leaders. Leadership motivated by self-interest does not serve the well being of the team. Leadership based on integrity represents nothing less than a set of values others share, behaviour consistent with values and dedication to honesty with self and team members. In other words the leader "walks the talk" and in the process earns trust.


Plain and simple, we don't like leaders who are negative - they bring us down. We want leaders with enthusiasm, with a bounce in their step, with a can-do attitude. We want to believe that we are part of an invigorating journey - we want to feel alive. We tend to follow people with a can-do attitude, not those who give us 200 reasons why something can't be done. Enthusiastic leaders are committed to their goals and express this commitment through optimism. Leadership emerges as someone expresses such confident commitment to a project that others want to share his or her optimistic expectations. Enthusiasm is contagious and effective leaders know it.


What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Although the words are similar, they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. According to Norman Paul, in sympathy the subject is principally absorbed in his or her own feelings as they are projected into the object and has little concern for the reality and validity of the object's special experience. Empathy, on the other hand, presupposes the existence of the object as a separate individual, entitled to his or her own feelings, ideas and emotional history (Paul, 1970). As one student so eloquently put it, It's nice when a project leader acknowledges that we all have a life outside of work.


Simply put, to enlist in another's cause, we must believe that that person knows what he or she is doing. Leadership competence does not however necessarily refer to the project leader's technical abilities in the core technology of the business. As project management continues to be recognised as a field in and of itself, project leaders will be chosen based on their ability to successfully lead others rather than on technical expertise, as in the past. Having a winning track record is the surest way to be considered competent. Expertise in leadership skills is another dimension in competence. The ability to challenge, inspire, enable, model and encourage must be demonstrated if leaders are to be seen as capable and competent.

Ability to Delegate Tasks

Trust is an essential element in the relationship of a project leader and his or her team. You demonstrate your trust in others through your actions - how much you check and control their work, how much you delegate and how much you allow people to participate. Individuals who are unable to trust other people often fail as leaders and forever remain little more that micro-managers, or end up doing all of the work themselves. As one project management student put it, A good leader is a little lazy. An interesting perspective!

Cool Under Pressure

In a perfect world, projects would be delivered on time, under budget and with no major problems or obstacles to overcome. But we don't live in a perfect world - projects have problems. A leader with a hardy attitude will take these problems in stride. When leaders encounter a stressful event, they consider it interesting, they feel they can influence the outcome and they see it as an opportunity. Out of the uncertainty and chaos of change, leaders rise up and articulate a new image of the future that pulls the project together. (Bennis 1997) And remember - never let them see you sweat.

Team-Building Skills

A team builder can best be defined as a strong person who provides the substance that holds the team together in common purpose toward the right objective. In order for a team to progress from a group of strangers to a single cohesive unit, the leader must understand the process and dynamics required for this transformation. He or she must also know the appropriate leadership style to use during each stage of team development. The leader must also have an understanding of the different team players styles and how to capitalise on each at the proper time, for the problem at hand.

Problem Solving Skills

Although an effective leader is said to share problem-solving responsibilities with the team, we expect our project leaders to have excellent problem-solving skills themselves. They have a fresh, creative response to here-and-now opportunities, and not much concern with how others have performed them. (Kouzes 1987)


  • Bennis, W., 1997. "Learning to Lead," Addison-Wesley, MA.
  • Kouzes, J. M: "The Leadership Challenge," Jossey-Bass Publishers, CA.
  • Norman: Parental Empathy. Parenthood, Little, Brown, NY.

Timothy R. Barry is a trainer and consultant for ESI International with more than 20 years of experience in project management. He has worked with over 40 major organisations worldwide.

With over 20 years experience, ESI International is the world's largest Project Management Training and Consulting provider. A comprehensive mix of project management, E-training, tailored corporate courses, consulting, assessment and mentoring means they are able to provide their clients with proven methods that enable them to achieve their goals. To put ESI International's Project Management Solutions to work for your company, or for more information, call +44 (0)20 7915 5099 or visit the website at

Comments (9)

Topic: Top 10 Qualities of a Project Manager
4/5 (9)
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22nd July 2020 3:41am
Barb Dossetter (Singapore) says...
In my experience of being a Programme Director for decades and managing ERP projects around the world, most projects fail on the lack of the soft skills. Even Risk management needs the softer skills to make a difference. I have seen projects where all the paperwork was done to Prince2 standards, but the projects failed in the eyes of the project sponsors because of the inability of the Project Manager to persuade people to do their committed task on time. The most reported failure reason is communication and that is cited in over 60% of reasons. That's why we focus on these as when they work, everything else usually works as well.
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15th April 2019 4:35pm
Quinsey Moyo (Bulawayo Zimbabwe) says...
I am a development studies student and studying for my exams. I appreciate the outline of the characteristics of a project manager. I will not fail to remember because they are well articulated.
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21st October 2017 6:17pm
Leanore Medrano (Conroe) says...
I believe that these are all excellent qualities for a project manager, but also for just surviving in life. It’s a tough world to live through, but when you're able to share a positive attitude and lift people's spirits, and when other people have trust in you then it's definitely a great day!
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23rd February 2017 5:06am
Aimee Windmiller-Wood (Seattle) says...
The comments I am reading are exactly why listing these skills is so important. In my experience, I have seen outstanding technically proficient PMs who fail miserably with their projects due to many of these missing components. Calling them soft skills lessens their importance, especially when someone clearly leans toward focusing on technical proficiency and expertise. How about we call technical skills, threshold skills and identify this list of skills the way the author intended when he asked highly successful PMs why they were successful. This is a top ten list of their experience. This seems pretty accurate to me.
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13th October 2016 12:23am
Deb Parkinson (Ashford MDLSX London) says...
Thank you for this article. I think it is a a good list and I agree that 'The top 10 soft skills' is an appropriate term to use.
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29th November 2015 10:01am
John McDonnell (Clansthal South Coast South) says...
Overall I thought it was very good. Over thirty years, I have adopted the above methods, and they have worked very well for me. However, I do agree with Ian Cropton that planning is one of the very important skills a project manager should have under his belt; you must have the planning in place before you start the project.
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22nd September 2015 4:32pm
Chris Storey (London) says...
For me this is a good list of the characteristics of a good PM - not necessarily the functional / technical skills you need to be successful - for me it is a given that a good PM has a good handle on the technicalities of managing a project (estimating, planning, issue & risk management etc.) - a great PM is one who can also exhibit the above characteristics.
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17th September 2015 10:42am
Ian Cropton (Colchester) says...
I'm very surprised to see that an ability to plan a project, from the top down, is not mentioned. I would count it as the most important technical skill a project leader must have, and would place it at number 3 in your list. Associated with that would be to ensure a full plan is in place before the project kicks off. Mind you, it's been some 20 years since I worked as a PM in IT. Perhaps modern PMs don't do this anymore?
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17th September 2015 6:14pm
Duncan Haughey (London) says...
I suppose people on the ESI courses didn't rank the ability to plan a project as highly as you. The list is made up of soft skills and doesn't include other relevant PM skills such as risk management, requirements management, stakeholder management to name but three.

I think this could be classified easily as the top 10 'soft skills' needed to be an effective project leader.

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