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Discovering the New Project Leader in You

Jack Ferraro

Yet every day somewhere the sun does shine,
So don't tell me it is too late,
To believe a little bit in yourself.
—Nils Lofgren, "Believe"

A service-based project leader transforms people, systems, and ultimately organizations. To pursue this inner journey of leadership, and its accompanying risks and rewards, he must be committed in body, mind, and spirit.

A Commitment Story

The movie The Cinderella Man tells the story of James Braddock, a former heavyweight champion whose luck runs bad during the Great Depression. Braddock seeks to provide for his family and reclaim his dignity by coming out of retirement and taking on the great German champ Max Baer, who was known for having killed two boxers in the ring with his ruthless use of power.1

Braddock's fall from the top was far, as he needed public assistance to provide for his family. His hard times during the Depression in New Jersey are marked in the movie as he struggles to meet the basic needs of his family, stripping away his dignity but not his belief in his ability to box.

Such basic needs as Braddock's are the foundation of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (see Figure 1).2 The lowest level of human needs is physical needs: breathing, eating, sleeping, etc. In Braddock's case, the next level of Maslow's hierarchy—the need for safety and basic shelter—is threatened by the turmoil of the Depression. His love for his family and his needs for self-esteem and self-actualization (striving to be the best that he can with his unique abilities) are the remaining layers of the pyramid. These needs for love, belonging, status, and selfactualization are the higher-level needs that drive Braddock to get back in the boxing ring.

Figure 1. Maslow's hierarchy of needs. (From Arthur G. Bedeian and William F. Gleuck, Management, 3rd ed. Chicago: Dreyden Press, 1983, 139.)

The lower-level needs are often referred to as basic needs, while the upper-level needs are referred to as being needs. In Braddock's case, the basic and being needs seem to have a relationship; to fulfill his basic needs, he is directed toward the fulfillment of his being needs.

Maslow's hierarchy is commonly used as a model for human needs. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist, extended Maslow's highest level (self-actualization) with purpose needs—the need to find meaning in one's life. Drawing on his research and personal experiences from the Nazi concentration camps in World War II, Frankl observed that prisoners in the camps who had a burning desire to live were more likely to survive. Their focus on the future, such as a vision of being reunited with loved ones, influenced their attitude toward their horrific situation.

Frankl discusses three criteria for finding meaning in life in his book Man's Search for Meaning. The first is through experiential values such as love for another person. The second is creative values: finding meaning in activities such as work, projects, artistic endeavors, etc. Finally, Frankl discusses attitudinal values, critical to a healthy outlook on life, such as compassion, courage, and humor.3 Finding meaning in life eventually results in a higher-level experience, called transcendence. Transcendence has a spiritual underpinning through which a person's meaning in life is not dependent on others, their projects, or professional life, but rather a supernatural relationship that stretches beyond human logic.4 Transcendence allows one to see the world differently and involves a level of integration of body, mind, and soul. It is characterized by peak performance and removes limitations associated with people and environment. The result is more serenity and inner peace.5

In the final scene of The Cinderella Man, Braddock has out boxed Baer and appears to be certain to win the heavyweight title as a long shot. Braddock pursues Baer around the ring in an attempt to a knock him out, risking getting knocked out himself by the stronger Baer. Maybe Braddock's desire to knock out Baer represented an integration of body, mind, and soul and a breakthrough to a new life without the limitations of his past.

Braddock's basic needs appear to awaken his higher needs. The return to the boxing ring provided food and shelter for his family, but the fight with Baer is driven by the need to reclaim his lost dignity. Braddock's journey came to symbolize the common man's struggle through the Depression. He transcends himself as a representative of the people of his time and rises to a superior level of performance. James Braddock is a story of commitment and transcendence, an inspiration to millions during the Depression—and his story continues to inspire.

Committing to Personal Change

Self-actualization and self-transcendence are important concepts in the commitment process of becoming a service-based project leader. Leadership training often produces temporary, superficial results that do not make lasting changes to individuals. The hectic pace of project life makes it difficult to focus on personal change and higher-level needs.

Project managers are paid well enough to meet physiological and safety needs, and belonging to a project organization may meet some of their higher-order needs. A project manager who is dealing with constant demands must develop a burning desire to meet his higher-level needs, even though his basic needs are satisfied. These high-level being and purpose needs cannot be ignored in this commitment process.

This poses huge challenges for practitioners. When basic needs go unmet, it is physically and emotionally obvious to one's psyche. But when higher needs remain unfulfilled, their absence is not always obvious. These needs are neither mandatory to sustain life, nor are they common. They must be pursued as Braddock pursued Baer.

Coupled with a desire to fulfill higher-order needs, practitioners must be aware of their natural abilities, strengths, and qualities, which when called into action bring joy and satisfaction. For Braddock, it was his boxing skills. But where did Braddock find the belief in himself to take on Max Baer even after hitting rock bottom, losing everything including his dignity and being forced to rely on handouts to feed his family? How does a project leader come to believe in himself?

One thing that does seem to be observable in the commitment to personal change is that when lower-order needs are threatened, the shock and trauma seem to awaken higher-order needs. Often in the wake of a failed project or downsizing people ask themselves, "Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? Am I living the life I desire? What does happiness mean to me? "

Unfulfilled Needs + Natural Abilities = Initiation of Personal Change

Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if these higher-order needs are being fulfilled in your life and work:6

  • Did I wake up excited about today?
  • Did I laugh today?
  • Did I contribute to something larger than myself?
  • Did my relationships at work energize me today?
  • Do I look forward to tomorrow?
  • Do I feel optimism about the future today?

These personal questions require reflection and contemplation to determine if higher-order needs are being met. A leader serious about professional growth must evaluate who he is today and who he really desires to be.

Ownership: Whose Career Is It, Anyway?

A practitioner who seeks to satisfy these unmet needs must first make a conscious decision to take ownership of his career. This ownership rests in a combination of choices and decisions concerning what he desires in a career. These decisions are made with regard for the truth of his present state of being. Life choices about who he desires to be lead to continual decisions and subsequent actions to reach his ideal state of being. These decisions result in an alteration of his reality, which in turn impacts his future choices. This process is illustrated in Figure 2.

For example, a busy project manager may choose family life over a promotion that would require significant travel. This decision leads to an altered state of being: working more conventional hours in the same office, a similar routine, and the same people. The truth may be that he misses the excitement of project work, meeting new people, and the constant challenges. This truth may lead him to conclude that there is conflict in the choice between family and work, which may lead to revisiting the initial decision. These decisions must align with the person he really is. Unfortunately, many are too busy to even think about this, while others spend a lifetime trying to figure it out.

Figure 2. Ownership of Your Choices, Decisions, and Outcomes.

Life Choices

A life choice commits a person to a state of being. This choice is the foundation upon which other choices are made. In order to make good life choices, a person must be true to himself in thought and action, regardless of feelings and surroundings7. People who have been successful in a technical career and then accidentally become project managers often find that the additional responsibilities preclude an evaluation of whether these new decisions are in tune with their desired state of being. The new demands inherent to a project manager role include constant social interaction, dealing with ambiguity, delegating to others, and leading a team in spite of a lack of authority. These demands may not align with life choices and higher-order needs, even though more money or a new title initially created a feeling of satisfaction. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School graduate and professor, encourages his students to develop a management strategy for their lives. When a company's resource allocation process is not managed well, what results from it can be very different from what management intended, and the same applies to people. Christensen impresses on his students how he has seen the lives of his Harvard Business School classmates unfold over the years. More and more of them arrive at reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. Surely, not one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn't keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.8


Decisions are actions required to fulfill the life choice of being true to oneself. They range from momentous decisions to daily, unnoticeable ones. How a person decides to allocate his personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shapes his life's strategy. A decision to become a certified project manager is not a life choice but rather a decision to fulfill a life choice. If a person's life choice is not clearly made, the decision to invest in a certification may be misguided. In applying the concept of life choices and decisions, he might include choosing to

  • Work with people (on teams or as a liaison with management)
  • Contribute to society
  • Share the experience of creating new products or services

As an example of a decision made to support one of these choices, he would

  • Be a project manager
  • Improve interpersonal skills
  • Become a service-based project leader

Everyone desires to have a rewarding career that brings joy, happiness, and a sense of purpose. A theory that gives great insight on finding happiness in careers is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in life isn't money; it's the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.9 When life choices and decisions align with these motivators, the real leader within a person is more likely to emerge.


Truth can mean conformity to fact or actuality. But in the context of commitment to a service-based project leadership career, truth is more about fidelity to an original or standard. This fidelity is measured by the discrepancy between present reality and one's desired state of being. This fidelity is achieved through a pursuit of an inner calling, until one's present career is aligned with the desired state.

Many practitioners—not just project managers, but doctors, lawyers, and others—work backward. They make decisions about their careers before making a life choice about being true to themselves. The external journey of choosing a career or profession is too often made before the internal journey—the serious consideration of one's calling. The result is years of hard work, often producing results but not fulfilling one's potential or higher-order needs.

It is not too late to start your second career as a service-based project leader. Consider the impact you can have on a project team member who is driving home to her family, her self-esteem stripped away after a long, 10-hour day, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. What if you were able to have her leave with greater self-esteem, feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for valuable achievements, and played a significant role in the success of the important initiative you're leading? Think how that could positively impact a person as a spouse and a parent. If done well, service-based project leadership is a noble career.

Many successful business people reach their peak at 45 years of age. After doing very much the same kind of work for 20 years, their learning and contributions wane. Job satisfaction and challenges diminish. Yet they still have to face another 20 to 25 years of productive work.10

Personal Confidence

Confidence is the bridge between expectations and performance. The leader's primary task is to build this bridge to attract the resources, attitudes, and discipline required for success.11 A service-based project leader must first instill inner confidence and belief in himself before attempting to build the bridge for others. Fear wages its battle against confidence. A constant stream of new projects, players, subject matter, and political dynamics all contribute to unknowns, which contribute to fear, which undermine confidence. Fear has a powerful smell; like easily spooked mustangs, team members recognize a lack of confidence in their project leader. A project leader must be sure of himself in spite of this ambiguity. A service-based project leader's confidence stems from his ability to make relationships work, more so than knowledge or processes. This ability to build confidence through the constancy of project relationships is a critical success factor to his leadership efforts.

Every organization seems to have projects that people fear. A project embroiled in controversy, continually criticized behind closed doors, and steeped in high turnover ultimately breeds a lack of confidence. Although off-site meetings and pep rallies can give some short-term elation, often the root cause is a lack of self-confident project leaders, which limits the confidence of the team and customer.

Group Confidence

Whether in sports, politics, or business, success seems to breed success. It takes a dramatic overhaul of attitudes and behaviors for losers to turn themselves around. Both visible behaviors and internal habits of thought prepare a team for success. Confident teams share a passion for accountability, collaboration, and initiative. They form around a worthy purpose that is attainable and objectively measurable. They demand accountability because they understand interdependence; they collaborate openly and freely because there is no time or room for blame; their relationships embody trust. They act with decisive initiative because they have purpose and time is of the essence.12

A leader's attitude drives his behavior and his behavior drives others' attitudes, which in turn ripple into their behaviors. Group moods and emotions are contagious, and projects are no exception. Establishing group confidence is a critical part of any project leader's performance appraisal.

Psychological Barriers

Belief in oneself sounds nice, but putting it into practice can be difficult, particularly with the psychological background a leader carries forward in life.

A simple model describing how life experiences impact one's confidence, self-esteem, and ability to take risks is Eric Berne's transactional analysis. Berne's theory is that each individual has three life states (or ego states): the Adult (the only rational state), the Parent, and the Child. These states are played out in interactions with others externally, or internally within one's mind. The Parent state derives from authority figures or events that are imposed upon a person, and normally focuses on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. The Child state reflects one's feelings when exposed to external events. The brain records and stores these events and feelings, and later, the Parent and Child states play themselves out in Adult life, often without being recognized as irrational responses to the present situation.

Berne concludes that, when children are continually subjected to correction from parents, they form the attitude, "I'm not OK; you're OK. " This is not to imply that parents should not correct their children. However, Berne's research concludes that many people do not emerge from this state. As adults, they feel that they live at the mercy of others, which leads them to continually seek approval.

Some children move out of the "I'm not OK; you're OK, " and into a second life position of, "I'm not OK; you're not OK. " This comes about when parental correction is applied without supportive, positive reinforcement. The child develops an attitude that life is difficult, troubling, and must be survived alone, and carries this into adult life.

Other children move into an attitude of, "I'm OK; you're not OK, " which can be carried into adult life as the feeling that life is very challenging because of the incompetence that surrounds them.

It's the fourth attitude of, "I'm OK; you're OK, " that represents the healthiest position. This state requires a balance of self-confidence that allows the establishment of healthy relationships and self-esteem with control of the negative, blaming responses that fuel the sense that other people are "not OK. "13

The adult "I'm not OK " or "You're not OK " attitudes are not conducive to projects, their managers, or leaders. The temporariness of the project environment, with its lack of a stable structure and ambiguity, can fuel these attitudes, undermining one's confidence and ability to lead, making it easier to be resigned to a less than successful outcome, or even to fail.

However, with confidence, a project manager is more likely to transition into the behaviors of a leader. These behaviors include anything from confidently strolling through the office to fostering open communication, to knowing project team members as people, not just as workers, and treating them with respect.

The service-based project leader's self-confidence leads to personal transformational experiences. By instilling confidence in the team and customer, the initiation of transformation begins. The first step is to build the bridge of confidence. This may sound overwhelming to a busy professional settled into a career and life position, but it is never too late to believe in yourself.


Commitment begins with a desire to fulfill the higher-order needs described in the works of Maslow and Frankl, paired with an awareness of one's natural abilities, strengths, and qualities.

Practitioners who seek to satisfy these needs must first make a conscious decision to take ownership of their destiny. This ownership rests in a combination of life choices and decisions concerning what one desires in life and a career. A service-based project leader must first instill inner confidence in himself before building a bridge of confidence for others.


1.    James J. Braddock—The OfficeWebsite s.v. "the movie, " http://www.jamesjbraddock. com/movie/ (accessed November 22, 2006).

2.    Arthur G. Bedeian and William F. Gleuck, Management, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Dreyden Press, 1983), 139.

3.    Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 111.

4.    Ibid.

5.    Leland R. Kaiser, s.v. "Increasing Sense of Personal Freedom, " (accessed November 22, 2006).

6.    Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 129.

7.    Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989), 188.

8.    Clayton M. Christensen, "How Will You Measure Your Life? " Harvard Business Review, July–August 2010. (accessed January 15, 2014).

9.    Frederick Herzberg, "One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? " Harvard Business Review, January 2003. (accessed January 15, 2014).

10.    Peter F. Drucker, "Managing Oneself, " Harvard Business Review, January, 2005, 108.

11.    Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (New York: Crown Business, 2004), 3.

12.    Ibid.

13.    David Hillson and Ruth Murray-Webster, Understanding and Managing Risk Attitude (Hants, England: Gower Publishing, 2005), 102–103.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

As executives build and nurture their organization’s strategic agility in today’s turbulent, uncertain business environment, the ability to lead strategic change has become more critical than ever. The Strategic Project Leader: Mastering Service-Based Project Leadership, Second Edition helps project managers lead with confidence in temporary, ambiguous team structures that execute risk-laden work in an increasingly agile project environment.

Like the first edition, this edition encourages readers to take ownership of their leadership agenda and become disciplined in the processes of building a framework of leadership skills. Readers are introduced to a new role: the service-based project leader. This role serves the entire project organization by creating a meaningful experience for team members, customers, and critical stakeholders.

The book provides practical guidance to help you move from project manager to service-based project leader. Detailing a framework for developing and refining leadership skills, it explains how to build a leadership competency pyramid and then execute a self-directed plan for building leadership competencies. The leadership competency pyramid includes an intuitive model that will be helpful to project managers at any level.

The book elaborates on the components of each layer of the pyramid and how each layer relates to the others. A chapter is dedicated to each layer of the pyramid, with supporting evidence for the necessity of each of these layers, as well as practical advice on how to build and practice these component layers.

About the Author

Jack Ferraro, PMP founded MyProjectAdvisor, a project management services company that provides project management training and leadership development. Jack has 20 years of experience working with project teams with extensive experience managing complex enterprise technology and business process improvement projects.