Nerd alert! I am a big Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fan. I’ve probably read those books each year or so since I was a gangly pre-teen. Each time I join Frodo and company on their journey to destroy the One Ring, I notice something unique in JRR Tolkien’s storyline I hadn’t paid attention to before.

This past year was no different as I discovered that Gandalf, the powerful wizard who mentors Bilbo and Frodo throughout the series, is a top-notch project manager. Besides his considerable abilities in the world of wizardry, Gandalf also possesses some rare leadership qualities from which we would all do well to scrutinize and adopt in our quest to achieve project success.

Below I take you through three project leadership traits which Gandalf exhibited throughout his exploits in Tolkien’s mythic world of Middle-Earth. If you aren’t familiar with Tolkien’s universe, some of these terms, characters, and places might be unfamiliar to you. Be that as it may, I hope that the general lessons I outline will help you become a stronger project manager, even though your projects might not involve an evil overlord, scheming wizards, ruthless orcs, or a magical ring.

Project Leadership Quality #1: Recognize that your project does not exist in a vacuum; it lives in a complex ecosystem.

As project managers we are fixated on scope. We are terrified that scope creep, just like the dreaded nazgûl (or Black Riders) in Tolkien’s tale, will crush our project objectives and leave horror and destruction in its wake.

Don’t get me wrong; understanding and defining scope is a worthy endeavor. However, sometimes fanaticism about scope can blind us to what is going on outside of our immediate project boundaries. We need to recognize and identify factors that will affect our projects that are not readily apparent from a project charter document.

Throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Gandalf frequently pivots his strategic approach to fighting evil, often prompted by unexpected changes which occur outside of his immediate “project”.

For example, when about to enter Mirkwood with Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the dwarves journeying to the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf abruptly informed the company that he must leave and would meet them on the other side. Their short-term project objective at that point was to cross Mirkwood, find the Lonely Mountain, and defeat the dragon Smaug.

Although this decision dismayed his companions, Gandalf didn’t let emotion cloud his judgment. He joined some other powerful project managers, (elves and wizards), to instead drive Sauron out of his resurgent stronghold in Dol Goldur. While Gandalf is away, Bilbo and company managed to find the Lonely Mountain by themselves.

Sauron’s decision to flee prevented him from partnering up with the powerful dragon Smaug. Gandalf’s foresight played a powerful, although indirect, impact on Thorin’s goal of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain. The Hobbit would have been very different with Smaug and Sauron teaming up as a terrifying tandem, and Gandalf made sure that didn’t happen even though none of his immediate project stakeholders recognized such a far-off threat.

Project Leadership Quality #2: Don’t be afraid to vigorously and persistently challenge a precedent within your project ecosystem that doesn’t make any sense.

Gandalf never lost sight of his overarching objective of overthrowing Sauron, even when the existing bureaucracy among the “good guys” wasn’t always optimal for doing so. Although you don’t find this out from The Hobbit, Tolkien later revealed in other writings that Gandalf had repeatedly requested to drive out Sauron from Dol Goldur, only to be denied by his other persuasive (and evil!) wizard counterpart, Saruman. Rather than accepting the status quo after his first request was blocked, Gandalf continually warned his leadership peers about Sauron’s reappearance. To Saruman’s chagrin, eventually Gandalf gathered enough evidence to sway his decision maker’s opinion that Sauron had indeed returned after a long stretch of misleading peace.

Often as project managers we have to ask the tough questions that no one wants to ask. We have to challenge hidden agendas, false assumptions, unrealistic expectations, or even just general apathy in the face of project-critical objectives. And we shouldn’t expect that these challenges will be resolved right away; like Gandalf, it will take dedicated patience and diligence to get the complex project problems resolved over the long-term. We are doing ourselves and our clients a huge disservice when we complacently accept a project ecosystem and do nothing to challenge it, or we give up on tackling complex risks because they make for awkward conversations in the meeting rooms. The next time a C-suite stakeholder shoots down your important questions, be like Gandalf and rethink your approach, gather evidence, and refer to those hairy topics again and again throughout the project lifecycle.

Project Leadership Quality #3: Believe in your team and don’t be afraid to delegate.

There are points throughout all of Tolkien’s books in which a key character experiences doubt and confusion. Bilbo almost decides not to join Thorin on his quest to defeat Smaug. Frodo wonders why the ring ended up with him. Aragorn doubts his decision-making abilities after Merry and Pippin were captured by Saruman’s orcs. In all these and other instances, Gandalf doesn’t let his project team’s dejection adversely affect his approach to delegation. Instead, he offers them guidance (mentoring and coaching in today’s business parlance), provides resources, and sends them back on their way. Had Gandalf mistakenly believed that only he himself could fix all of Middle-Earth’s problems, he would not have been able to accomplish so much, including the ultimate defeat of Sauron and his minions.

Whether from plain old pride or traumatic past project failures, sometimes as project managers we hold too closely to the old axiom, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Like Gandalf, if our team is underperforming, we should address the gaps that prevent team members from reaching their full potential. Retaining all project tasks for ourselves is a recipe for burnout. We can accomplish more if we empower and delegate.


To sum up, the three project leadership qualities I learned from Gandalf this past year were:

  1. Recognize that your project does not exist in a vacuum; it lives in a complex ecosystem.
  2. Don’t be afraid to vigorously and persistently challenge a precedent within your project ecosystem that doesn’t make any sense.
  3. Believe in your team and don’t be afraid to delegate.

In 2018, look to exemplify these traits in your project adventures. And if you haven’t already, sit down with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings for some page-turning, compelling storytelling. You might be surprised what you learn from Tolkien’s timeless classics!


Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Justin Scoville

Justin Scoville

Contributing Author

Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.


Joining as a contributing author has turbocharged my personal brand. Publishing articles on the site has easily doubled or tripled the amount of page views I would garner on my own, and those numbers are trending upward as the site continues to grow. As a author, I've been able to tap into networking opportunities both internally at my company and externally with other professionals that I never would have had otherwise. For anyone looking to gain recognition for project management expertise and join an amazing community of PMs, joining is a no brainer!


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