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Choosing Project Leaders with Logical Levels

The process of choosing who gets promotions often throws companies of all stripes into a dilemma – especially when it comes to management. Often a person’s expertise and their commitment trigger interest in them as a promotion prospect. But at the same time we all know that qualifications do not necessarily causally link up with leadership qualities – let alone potential. Leaders are frequently faced with the challenge of asking themselves: does this person really have what it takes?

Things are no different with project managers. At the end of the day the project manager’s role has many components of conventional leadership. We need to remember leaders are not born. Most of the time they are made. Sometimes they have the opportunity to be groomed.

So the question is: how do we choose the right person to become a project manager? There are many models in human resources theory to help us choose the right candidate. I would like to present the logical levels model as established in the 1980s by the NLP practitioner Robert Dilts.

The Logical Levels Model by Robert Dilts

The logical levels are used to help us understand other people (and ourselves). Logical levels are hierarchically organized levels of thinking that have different levels of influence. The “current reality vs future vision” comparison is a tool used to select and develop leaders.
The model distinguishes among 6 levels (the bottom level being number 1):

  • VI – Belonging, spirituality, vision, mission
  • V – Identity
  • IV – Values, beliefs, filters, meta-programs
  • III – Abilities
  • II – Behavior
  • I – Environment, context

The logical levels are not only “applicable” to individuals but also to entire people groups or abstract concepts like project management. Let’s take a look at the possible or desired profiles of project leaders.

Step by step and level by level

Step by step and level by level

Level I: Environment, context

Everything (occurrences, events etc.) happens in a specific context /environment. This is the environment in which individuals find themselves. It has temporal as well as spatial aspects to it, all of which can be experienced through the senses. Similarly the environment is important in projects. A project is always conducted in an environment – it exerts influence on the project and the environment exerts influence on it.

Project management is, in my worldview, much more than just a methodology. In companies that conduct their project management in a structured way it is part of their leadership culture. The employees, and specifically the project leaders, are not just a part of the organizational structure, but are also part of the project organization due to their participation in or leadership of projects. That means that everyone should be clear about the fact that the classic organizational structure does not create values in and of itself, whereas generally values are created in projects – at least in F&E and investment projects. Project focused leadership structures are not dependent on the size and industry in which a company operates. The project leaders take on a central role within the company and make valuable contributions to the success of the company through their efforts. Companies that take project management seriously view it as a part of human resources development, primarily in the area of career development and further education.

Level II: Behavior

This level is about people’s behavior – about their observable acts, actions/reactions. That includes their choice of words, body language, facial expressions, movements and breathing. The relevant question used is: “what?” or “what exactly?” and is usually combined with words like “do” and “perform”.

The project manager is a highly visible member of the team by virtue of her/his responsibility in the company. He/she serves the very important function of being a role model. Everything he/she does is constantly being watched.

The IPMA (International Project Management Association) cites the following as being typical attributes among project leaders:

  • Communication skills
  • Initiative, drive, the ability to inspire passion in others, the ability to motivate others
  • Networking affinity, openness, sensitivity, self-control, appreciativeness
  • A strong sense of responsibility, integrity
  • Conflict management skills, having a thick skin, fairness
  • Problem solving ability, holistic thinking
  • Loyalty, solidarity, helpfulness
  • Leadership skills

NLP skills are well suited to forming the behavioral attributes in many of the areas mentioned in this list.

Level III: Capabilities

Internal processes are not immediately observable (at least not without the participation of the observed person). Capabilities are comprised of cognitive (thinking) and emotional processes (feeling) that a person goes through to make certain behavior possible. Capabilities are described using words like “can” or “have” in combination with nominalizations like courage, fear, knowledge and skills. The associated question is: “How?”
A large part of the success and the overall results in a given project can be accounted for by the capabilities of those involved, when those skills are optimally used in the context of the project. The project manager has the task of differentiating between team members’ actual and desired skill levels, and then to address the deficits appropriately. Conflicts can arise among team members because of their differing levels of emotional maturity – as well as among employees and supervisors, and team members and project leaders.

A person’s capabilities can sometimes be ascertained from observing their behavior. Communication is an important tool for gaining insight into internal processes and reading whether someone possesses certain capabilities .

When it comes to the leader’s project management capabilities and those of the other stakeholders then appropriate and relevant training programs are necessary to attain and sustain a particular level.

The project manager’s capabilities and competencies can be interpreted from the way various tasks are carried out. Overall four competencies have been identified:
• Technical competencies (in reference to the content of the project and its environment)
• Methodological competencies (project management methods)
• Organizational competencies (in reference to the projects, their planning and implementation)
• Social skills (in reference to the project team members and its environment)
NLP can help you attain and develop social competencies. The central, basic ability that is learned in NLP courses is the development and maintenance of a rapport with one’s conversation partner. Another NLP aspect that helps the development of social competencies is knowledge and the use of linguistic meta-models in communication situations.
The behavior necessary on the second level also applies to the third level: skills. This is especially true for people’s ability to work with teams with a high turnover rate, as is the case with matrix project organizations. The same applies on a professional level – the ability to get used to new situations and to handle complexity. These points also require more sophisticated communications skills.

Level IV: Values, Beliefs, Filters, Meta-Programs

It is on the level of values, beliefs filters and meta-programs that skills are affected. These skills also influence behavior. Much of the application of these skills happens on an unconscious level. Skills present in a person only come to the fore when their values and beliefs allow them to do so. The mechanisms mentioned above in level IV influence people’s unconscious perception before they become conscious of it.

Just like with values, beliefs and the resulting belief systems have significant influence on the participants’ actions and skills. They create decision making criteria, metrics, convictions, ideas and motivators. Different values among stakeholders create potential conflict in the context of projects. The result is classic value conflicts. Filters and meta-programs among stakeholders can be easily misunderstood and can lead to conflicts birthed from a lack of understanding.

NLP knowledge can therefore garner the largest positive results on this level because conflicts, with all their negative effects, can be most efficiently be avoided here. Appropriate and relevant communication using participants’ meta-program is the best strategy for conflict avoidance and resolution. Questions like: “Why?”, “What is important?” and “What are you focusing on?”, “What do you hope to gain from that?” are useful in recognizing values, beliefs, filters and meta-programs. Words like “have to”, “want to”, “should”, “may”, “could” are used in the associated communication forms.

This level affects the requirements and the skills called for in the concrete area for which the project leader is being hired. A high level of congruency is needed between the company and the person, especially in the area of values. That includes convictions and ideologies. The values and beliefs on the fourth level could also influence people’s understanding of their identity on the fifth level and can lead to conflicts there.

Level V: Identity

Of course all stakeholders have a more-or-less conscious understanding of their own identity. In the company and in the projects that get carried out there (which are constantly undergoing changes) the participants take on important roles. If this role is not acknowledged power conflicts can be the result, particularly among managers whose influence over projects will be affected by the resulting changes. These conflicts can have a considerable impact on the success and results of the changes due to the power dynamics. Informal leaders and their identities also need to be taken into account.

Helpful questions in discovering your identity include: “Who are you?” or comparisons that follow the structure: “as X as Y”. The resulting answers and statements are often accompanied by the verb “to be”.
The project leaders must be aware of their importance and position in the company and the project. That goes for the externally visible properties on level I and II as well as for the invisible ones on levels III and IV that shape the lower levels.
In these levels the identities of the different participants are central. As such the project staff have specific identities which distinguish them from other projects – that is why matrix project organizations face a particular challenge when people belong to numerous projects simultaneously. Similarly employees have a corporate identity that distinguishes them from other companies.

Project leaders in matrix project organizations have competencies, formerly reserved for hierarchical supervisors, and they even have more authority. This can also lead to identity conflicts, particularly among hierarchical supervisors who feel threatened by the introduction of project managers.

Level VI: Belonging, Spirituality, Vision, Mission

This is about the big questions in life: “Why are we alive?”, “Why are we here?”, “What is the meaning of life?” As a result this level will only be dealt with briefly here because these questions go beyond the scope of projects per se. Employees are the most important resource in an organization. Businesses also make social and ecological contributions (think: corporate social responsibility).

There needs to be an overlap between the company and the person’s interests on this level too. The project leader needs to see and accept him/herself as an important part of the company.

Just like on the fifth level there are mechanisms at work at the sixth level that affect the entire company and all the employees whether it is in the form of firm convictions or in the way people create distinct identities in opposition to other companies or people. Questions about meaning certainly can be applied to the company context. Here it is important that the management is challenged to create and demonstrate this meaning by example.


The logical levels model gives us greater knowledge when choosing project leaders and it enables us to attain a high degree of congruence between the job requirements and candidates’ personal qualities.



Götz Müller has been working in the field of development projects since 1993, in restructuring projects and processes for continuous improvement since 1998 and is involved in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) since 2006. He is a certified Lean Moderator, Six Sigma Black Belt and NLP Mater Practitioner. He works as a freelance consultant and blogs about NLP in projects and more at

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