Becoming a Better Capital Project Leader

Three key insights for established and aspiring leaders working in the capital construction sector.


The work of an orchestra’s conductor is a beautiful embodiment of harmony and unity. Conductors interpret a composer’s vision in real time, leading individual musicians toward a collective expression of art. It is an extraordinary balance of authority and collaboration, requiring precise gestures and communication, empowering each musician to contribute their unique skills to the realization of something greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say, conducting an orchestra is a lot like running a capital project.

What does it take to conduct a capital project? What kind of leader do you need to be to balance authority and collaboration in a project environment? What gestures and communication inspire, empower and elicit high performance from capital project teams? Libraries are full of books written about leadership, of course, but in my work with capital project organizations, I have noticed that the greatest leaders share three extraordinary character traits. Here they are.

They practice ethical leadership.

Leadership, at its very core, is about shaping the culture of an organization. The way in which leaders conduct themselves sets the tone, and establishes behavioral expectations for everyone else. This influences everything from how employees approach their work and make decisions, to how they engage with one another, company partners, stakeholders, and clients. Leaders with a strong moral compass who embody and promote ethical behavior will foster trust, integrity, transparency and accountability within their teams.

This does not happen by accident. Ethical leaders are conscious of their role in setting the tone for organizational conduct, and they strive for alignment and transparency in their day-to-day work and decision-making, modeling the behavior they wish to see in their teams. They do what they say they’ll do, and like the conductor of an orchestra, they ensure that all the sections — procurement, construction, engineering, estimating, financing, etc. — are playing from the same song sheet. If the strings are off-key or the percussionists are out of time, the conductor steps in. That’s leadership.

Leadership, at its very core, is about shaping the culture of an organization.

They embrace and leverage conflict.

Conflict avoidance is a sign of weak or immature leadership. The orchestra’s conductor cannot ignore the cracking French horn, and a capital project leader cannot ignore problems in a department in an effort to avoid conflict. In both cases, performance will not improve until the issue is addressed, and it is the leader’s job to address it — and leverage it for good. 

Consider, for example, the case of an organization with a poor safety record. Shareholders bring in a new leader to undertake the transformation required to improve the safety record. In practical terms, the shareholders believe that the new leader is aligned with their goal of creating a safe organization. The new leader cannot, then, align himself with those who are content to have a company with a poor safety record; he cannot protect and defend the people who resist the changes required to improve the safety record. This is conflict avoidance, and great leaders know it. They embrace this conflict, and leverage it in the service of organizational transformation

Conflict avoidance is a sign of weak or immature leadership.

They get help when they need it.

Leading is hard, and resistance to change can be exceptionally difficult to manage. We think of transformation as linear, but it is often cyclical, with periods of rapid adoption and organizational resistance occurring multiple times before the transformation is complete. The best leaders recognize when they have been overtaken by internal politics and counterproductive organizational narratives, and they reach for outside support. 

These three characteristics are simple to write, and very difficult to practice. It can be helpful to remind yourself why you were hired as a leader, and why you have undertaken the project, transformation or initiative you’re struggling with. If you find yourself losing track, or your look at your dashboard and it’s not evolving or improving, Concord®’s Executive Predictability Thinking Training and leadership consulting services can help. Contact us today. 

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