Inspirational Leadership and the role of a vision


By Thomas Walenta, PMP, PMI Fellow


In October 2008 I was happy enough to attend the PMI Symposium in Denver and listen to its keynote speaker Colin Powell. He conveyed several messages about leadership and one stuck with me in particular because it shows very well the difference between a leader and a manager, a team vision and project objectives. He also told the audience that he considers himself to be a project manager and did projects in all his professional life as a military leader, when he was initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and closing, as well as building teams.


Colin Powell explained to the audience that is is not enough to motivate the team members, you have to inspire them. When they are inspired, they try – together with you as the leader – to make the vision come true. They want to reach it for themselves, not just do what they are told to do. They see challenges and find ways to overcome them. They do not ask the leader what to do next; they suggest next steps, options for problems and support each other. Inspiration means powerful influence on intellect and emotions of people and could refer to religious influence by prophets or preachers but also to artistic creativity.

As Colin Powell stated, motivation is a weaker form of influencing, by giving an incentive or a reason for doing something. Incentives work well as a leadership tool, but only for a short time and they also might be perceived as unbalanced with the service expected.

Decision making

In some projects, there will be situations where the path to success is not easy to see, benefits and risks have to be judged and balanced, and here is where the leader still is required to support by making decisions. In some cultures, decisions are made by the leader while in other cultures the leader just looks at proposals made by the team and challenges them. Decision making by the leader takes away some burden and responsibility from the team and will result in a faster progress.

This style of decision making is often seen in the western world and it is considered a best practice. Usually it works if the culture accepts explicit directions.

On the other hand, although with a longer decision making process, if the team has to come up with one opinion, decisions will be more sustainable, stable and implementation will be quicker.

Visions without a Leader

Think about the ‘Arab Spring’ events 2010 to 2012 in Northern Africa, supported by team communications through Twitter and Texting, thousands and millions of people managed to bring forward a quick change to their country, sharing a vision of freedom of choice (e.g. related to elections, occupation, family) and without suppression. These projects were started without a sponsor and implemented without a leader creating and maintaing a vision. In Egypt, some candidates for leadership even refused to take that role and responsibility, in Libya there were several spokespersons and focal points, but none of them drove the project, they were supporting followers of the vision. It was just enough to share a strong vision, which was relevant to the lives of many.


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About the Author 

141017-pmwj28-walenta-PHOTOThomas Walenta, PMPflag-germany

PMI Fellow

Frankfurt, Germany

Thomas Walenta, PMP, PMI Fellow, was working as Project and Program Manager for IBM from 1983-2014. Most recently he was responsible for a program encompassing all business of IBM with a global client in the EMEA region, with teams in India, Japan and across Europe. He led the PMI Frankfurt Chapter from 1998 to 2005, increasing membership from 111 to 750 and annual budget to 100K Euro.

Thomas had a variety of volunteer positions for PMI, among them being final juror of the PMI Project of the Year award, member of the PMI Board nomination committee, auditor for PMI‘s Registered Education Provider Program, writer/reviewer of PMP Exam questions and significant contributor to PMI‘s first standards about Program Management and Portfolio Management.

In 2005, he was elected by PMI membership to serve a 3 year term on the PMI Board from 2006 to 2008. Being a speaker on global project management events in Tokyo, Moscow, São Paulo and across Europe, Thomas extended his professional network significantly and is regarded as an experienced and skillful advisor and mentor.

Thomas is serving as a member of PMI’s Ethics Review Committee since 2011. He can be contacted via email at [email protected].