Project Management Articles

Attributes of a Successful Leader

by Di Ellis

No doubt many of you have heard of Napoleon Hill and his book "Think and Grow Rich" – it was the spark that ignited "The Secret" phenomenon of last year. As a Project Manager, what you may not realise is that during his 20 years of interviewing the most successful men and women in America, Hill determined the attributes that he believed most contributed to the success or failure of a leader.

It makes for fascinating reading, and many of his insights hold as true today as they did in the early 1930's when this book was written.

In his book, Hill lists 11 attributes that make for a successful leader:

The first attribute Hill refers to as unwavering courage, however it could more easily be described as self confidence and knowledge. According to Hill "unwavering courage (is) based upon knowledge of (one's) self and of one's occupation. No follower wishes to be dominated by a leader who lacks self-confidence and courage".  Think of any great leaders you may have worked with or witnessed, and they all demonstrate a marked degree of confidence in their own ability, a confidence that is not misplaced.

The second attribute is self control. In Hill's words "the man who cannot control himself can never control others. Self-control sets a mighty example for one's followers ". This is especially true when projects hit a hurdle or when some major calamity befalls the project or team. If the leader shows lack of control, the project is doomed. Great leaders stand out in times of crisis as being level headed and able to steer their project calmly through stormy seas.

The third attribute is "a keen sense of justice" or fairness. Without a sense of fairness and justice, no leader can command and retain the respect of his followers". No one can respect a leader who has attained their position through taking advantage of others or using them as stepping stones in their career, yet this is an attribute seen in many senior managers today! Real leaders have the respect of their peers and their teams, and they treat everyone as equals in terms of the amount of respect they are due, from the lowliest assistant to the General Manager.

The fourth attribute Hill refers to as "definiteness of decision". Hill states that "the man who wavers in his decisions shows that he is not sure of himself. He cannot lead others successfully". Strong leaders make decisions quickly and fairly, and then stick to those decisions. Any equivocation implies the poorness of the decision making process in the first instance, and is never contemplated by a great leader. However, should a decision be shown to be flawed (due to, say, new information coming to light which was not available at the time the original decision was made) a great leader is strong enough to admit that a better decision can now be made.

The fifth attribute Hill calls "definiteness of plans". By this, Hill explains "the successful leader must plan his work, and work his plan. A leader who moves by guesswork, without practical, definite plans, is comparable to a ship without a rudder. Sooner or later he will land on the rocks". And as Project Managers we know that a solid, workable plan is essential to the success of any project!

The sixth attribute is "the habit of doing more than paid for" although this attribute might better be called fairness and work ethic. Hill explains that "one of the penalties of leadership is the necessity of willingness, upon the part of the leader, to do more than he requires of his followers".  This can be interpreted as the concept of never expecting anyone to do a task you would not willingly do yourself, whether that be excessive overtime or dealing with difficult people. No leader can command respect who regularly delegates the more odious tasks to others.

The seventh attribute Hill calls "a pleasing personality" and goes on to state that "no slovenly, careless person can become a successful leader. Leadership calls for respect. Followers will not respect a leader who does not grade high on all of the factors of a Pleasing Personality". Hill makes a great deal in this book about the importance of neatness of attire and of personal habits. Whilst this may seem quaint in today's world, if you have ever worked with someone with less that perfect personal hygiene, you'll understand where this is coming from!

The eighth attribute is sympathy and understanding. According to Hill "the successful leader must be in sympathy with his followers. Moreover, he must understand them and their problems". Today we refer to this as empathy rather than sympathy, however the meaning is the same. A great leader takes time to get to know the team members and their goals and aspirations.

The ninth attribute Hill refers to as "mastery of detail". Following one from the first attribute "knowledge of (one's) self and of one's occupation", Hill advises us that a great leader is able to master the details required in any situation. That is not to say that the leader is the subject matter expert, only that they are capable of understanding the details presented to them, and being able to challenge, dissect and act upon those.

The tenth attribute is the willingness to assume full responsibility. Hill notes that "the successful leader must be willing to assume responsibility for the mistakes and the shortcomings of his followers. If he tries to shift this responsibility, he will not remain the leader. If one of his followers makes a mistake, and shows himself incompetent, the leader must consider that it is he who failed". Leadership, as in project management, requires that the leader or person in charge be accountable for the success or failure of the project. Whilst many Project Managers and leaders nod to this accountability, when things go wrong it is distressing to see how many of these so-called leaders quickly find someone else to blame. True accountability, heartfelt accountability, is the mark of a great leader.

The eleventh and final attribute is cooperation. According to Hill "the successful leader must understand and apply the principle of cooperative effort, and be able to induce his followers to do the same. Leadership calls for POWER, and power calls for COOPERATION". Here Hill refers to the ability to achieve through others, which is the hallmark of a successful leader or project manager. Great leaders and project managers have great teams with great teamwork.

Whilst I, personally, would have included a few more attributes, such as coaching and mentoring of staff, leading by example and able to grasp new ideas and concepts quickly, and perhaps left some out, such as neatness and hygiene, Hill's list is a very useful summary of the key attributes required to be a successful leader today. In summary, to be a successful leader you must have:

  1. Self confidence, be knowledgeable about your work
  2. Self control, remain calm under pressure
  3. Sense of justice, fairness & respect for others
  4. Decisive and stand by decisions
  5. Organization & planning skills
  6. Strong work ethic
  7. Neatness & hygiene
  8. Empathy
  9. Mastery of details
  10. True accountability in deed as well as word
  11. The ability to achieve through others

You can also read the next article in this series The Key Causes of Failure in Leadership.

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About the Author

Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management.

You can read the excerpt from Think and Grow Rich in full here.

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