Project Management Virtues

"Ethical living is the indispensable condition of all that is most worthwhile in the world."
Ernest Caldecott

Much is often said about the skills required to make a good project manager, and not quite so much about the virtues of a good project manager. By 'virtues' I'm talking about those positive ethical characteristics that are generally associated with the best among us.

There are three specific virtues that are of utmost importance for a project manager. This isn't to say that there aren't other significant virtues for this role, nor that we shouldn't look for these traits in people generally. Rather, if a project manager possesses these specific virtues to a healthy degree, over half the battle is already one. Then we can talk about skills.

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."Confucius

First is wisdom. The Norse god Odin was said to have sacrificed one of his eyes in return for a drink from the well of wisdom, and the various mythologies of the world speak often of the need for this virtue. The biblical book of Proverbs is centered around this idea, and has wisdom personified and calling out in the street for people to take heed. Wisdom is formed from a combination of empathy, observation, and critical thinking.

A wise person is one who seeks to understand people and situations so as to bring about the best outcome for as many as possible. It's easily described, the concepts readily understood, but only truly learned through experience (sorry Confucius!). That being the case, while I think that younger people can be effective project managers from a technical standpoint, I tend to favor the more seasoned professionals. It's good, I think, that so many project managers start out in other professions, as it gives them an opportunity to grow in wisdom before they begin managing expectations around projects.

"The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office."Dwight D. Eisenhower

Second is integrity. Composed of honesty and strong principles, integrity is the

quality of being undivided in one's nature. No speaking out of both sides of one's mouth, or using deception to accomplish goals. Since honesty is involved, this means speaking the truth as it is understood. Project risks are communicated clearly, and if there is a failure, this is admitted readily once confirmed. Likewise, a project manager with integrity will not be swayed to favor one stakeholder's demands over the others in return for tangible or intangible benefits. This may seem unrealistic and idealistic, but even the smallest of inducement to favoritism can end up biting you in the ass later. It's best not to play with fire.

"Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently." Maya Angelou

Third and finally is courage. I've mentioned setting expectations and communicating risks, both of which can be unpleasant to do, especially when dealing with a high-value client or senior-level stakeholders. What a project manager has to say is often not what people want to hear, and all the wisdom and integrity in the world won't get the words out of her mouth unless she has courage. This also goes for the courage to ask questions, something we often try to avoid so as not to look stupid. Better to seem a little dumb now rather than find yourself facing genuine shame later because of something important that you should have known.

There are certainly more virtues to cultivate, and certainly specific skills to acquire, to be a well-rounded, effective project manager. If I were to call any of them fundamental, it would be the three I've discussed here. With this, a person is well-oriented toward success in project management, and with the required skills can bring about valuable improvements and worthwhile products time and time again.