The Hierarchy of Leadership Success

Clarke Southwick
Oct 17 · 4 min read

The following is adapted from The Irreverent Guide to Project Management by Jason Scott.

It is widely recognized by the Project Management community that 90 percent of what a Project Manager does every day is communicate. Though this is true, it is important to clearly understand why we communicate. At 120VC, Project Managers communicate for the sole purpose of leading their projects forward as aggressively as possible, to lead their team members to the greatest possible success. Whether the communication is in person or in writing, each interaction is intended to move the project closer to completion. Any interaction that leads to confusion, or a status report that leads to questions, is a failed attempt at leadership.

Remember, we communicate to lead!

If you choose to label interactions that lead to confusion as “failed attempts at communication,” you will focus on improving your communication skills. Unfortunately, focusing on improving your communication skills will not guarantee improved leadership skills or better outcomes.

When you fail to get the necessary results from and for your team members, don’t focus on improving your communication, focus on improving your leadership skills. As Simon Sinek says: “Get your WHY right.” Or in other words, be clear on what you really need to improve.

Choosing to consider interactions that lead to confusion as failed attempts at leadership as opposed to failed attempts at communication is the first step to becoming a better leader. Making this choice is essentially taking responsibility for what is being heard by the person you are communicating to. Leaders that take responsibility for what their team members hear and for their team members’ outcomes will quickly sharpen their leadership skills and more consistently achieve the desired outcome.

The difference between a leader and a tyrant is that a leader works hard for the sake of everyone else, while a tyrant makes others work hard for them. Project Managers need to possess strong leadership skills because we have no formal authority.

  • We are responsible for ensuring the success of our “clients” via their projects.
  • We are 100 percent responsible for leading the project team to the greatest possible success.
  • We are responsible for making our clients’ dreams come true!

From my experience, the concept of leadership is widely misunderstood. There is a huge difference between a leader and an authority. Project Managers are leaders but are rarely the decision maker, and therefore, they lack official authority. Our clients decide what they want built, and the project team members decide how it will get built. The Project Manager’s role is to lead them to do this in the most effective and cost-efficient way, essentially enabling them to reach their greatest potential.

People in authority have the power to wield the proverbial carrot or stick to manipulate an outcome. Most people that yield the carrot and stick are perceived as exploiting the project team members to ensure their own personal success. Authority figures can choose to be leaders by inspiring an outcome or can simply wield their authority.

Inspiring an outcome requires remembering that, as a leader, you are not in charge, but that you have a responsibility to those in your charge.

  • Leaders don’t dictate an outcome; they help their team members focus on what can be done vs. what can’t be done.
  • Leaders help their team members prioritize their workload and run interference when anything threatens to distract them.
  • Leaders sincerely care about the success of their team members and focus on solutions, leadership style, coaching, and mentoring in ways that enable their team members’ success.

Leaders understand that when their team members succeed, the project will succeed and they in turn will be successful. People will naturally give their all to the leader they believe cares about their success before their own. People will generally give only the minimal effort required to the authority figure. Authority is the antithesis of leadership and, in my opinion, is an antiquated paradigm. Official authority or not, you can achieve more with strong leadership skills than with authority.

The “Hierarchy of Success” is simple:

  1. Work to ensure your project stakeholders are as successful as possible. Make sure every decision and every action you take serves this purpose.
  2. When your project stakeholders are successful, the project will be a success.
  3. In the end, you will be a successful leader that inspires people to their greatest potential.

For more advice on success, you can find The Irreverent Guide to Project Management on Amazon.

From the start of his career spent jumping out of helicopters in the United States Navy, J. Scott has a long history of leadership, servanthood, and bearing witness to the transformative power of getting shit done. Since starting 120VC he’s personally overseen the global transformational efforts within organizations such as DirecTV, Trader Joe’s, Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Mattel, and others. His team’s unique, irreverent approach to change has generated breakthrough results and created meaningful jobs. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, J. Scott is a devoted husband and father and author of “It’s Never Just Business: It’s About People,” and “The Irreverent Guide to Project Management,” both available on

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Clarke Southwick

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