Project Management Institute

The intersection of project success and project leadership


Leadership continues to be a much-discussed concept. There is general agreement that leadership is important, but no consensus about what it is. There are multiple definitions and viewpoints. The same can be said for project success. While everyone agrees that project success is important, there is no consensus on project success criteria. Some feel the triple constraint (time, cost, and scope) is sufficient. Others believe additional project success criteria are necessary to reflect other project outcomes that are important to stakeholders. What happens when these very two important concepts (leadership and success) are overlaid? The intersection of project success and project leadership provides insights on how to lead the project team and other stakeholders to real project success.


Project success and project leadership are both important concepts. Intuitively, they seem connected. Does a focus on one of these concepts automatically assure the other concept is addressed? This paper examines the basics of project success and project leadership, and then the intersection of the two in order to answer this question. First, however, it's useful to talk about change.


The Nature of Projects

The definition of a project in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) should be familiar: a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (Project Management Institute, 2004, p. 368). The implication is that the product, service or result did not exist prior to the project but did exist after the project was completed. Simply put, there is a change between the pre-project and the post-project timeframes.

Ways in Which Change Is Viewed

There are various ways in which to view change. At a macro level, one can categorize change models according to their underlying assumptions. Van de Ven and Poole (1995) used this approach. One of their categories has direct applicability to change from a project perspective since it assumes that change involves a movement toward a goal or end state.

At a more micro level, one can describe specific models regarding how change occurs. For example, Goodstein and Burke (1991) discussed several models of change. One of these models, attributed to Kurt Lewin, described change as a three-phase effort. Specifically, the phases of change are unfreeze, change and refreeze. Goodstein and Burke also discussed another change model, attributed to Beckhard and Harris, which described the three phases of change as present state, transition and future state. From a project perspective, these can be viewed as the pre-project preparation, the project itself and the post-project timeframe.

Other authors have proposed more detailed perspectives from which to view change. For example, Kubler-Ross (1969) formulated a five-phase model of change while working with terminally ill patients. According to KublerRoss, change involves denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (finally) acceptance. Similarly, Kotter (1996) described an eight-stage model for change:

  • Establishing a sense of urgency
  • Creating the guiding coalition
  • Developing a vision and strategy
  • Communicating the change vision
  • Empowering broad-based action
  • Generating short-term wins
  • Consolidating gains and producing more change
  • Anchoring new approaches in the culture.

The first of Kotter's eight stages can be viewed as the unfreezing phase of Lewin's model. The second through seventh stages seem to be more involved with the change itself (Lewin's second phase). Finally, Kotter's last stage is very similar to Lewin's refreezing phase.

Gladwell (2000) discussed three “agents of change.” The first is “The Law of the Few”; i.e., only a few key people need to adopt the change for the remainder of the group to follow. The second is “The Stickiness Factof'; i.e., elements of the proposed change must memorable. Finally, the third is “The Power of Context”; i.e., the proposed change must fulfill a need within a context.

The Impacts of Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts

Paradigms function as filters that enable individuals to see, or not see, data. Kuhn (1996) discussed this phenomenon over 40 years ago when The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was first published. Kuhn described paradigms as a structure for classifying data about a particular subject—what is relevant and what is not. A paradigm's filtering mechanism can lead an individual to misclassify or even ignore relevant data. It tells that individual what's possible and what's not possible. This helps explain how scientists can sometimes ignore data that they consider “anomalous.”

Barker (1992) discussed paradigms from a business perspective. In particular, paradigms are the rules that enable each individual to interpret the world. Barker also discusses the “going-back-to-zero rule” (p. 140). This occurs when there is a paradigm shift (like the implementation of a new system). In this situation, everyone starts over with respect to his knowledge (and expert power). Individuals who have significant knowledge and experience in the preproject processes potentially have much to lose and therefore may be more resistant to the changes that result from the successful project completion.


Traditional Definitions defines success as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors.” That sounds like a successful project. Is project success just the opposite of project failure? Indeed, defines failure as the “lack of success.”

An interesting side note is the propensity to focus on success rather than failure. A popular Internet search engine identified over twice as many citations for “project success” (162 million) as compared to “project failure” (69 million). It is reminiscent of the elementary adage, “If you think you can, you may be successful. But if you think you can't, you most likely will fail.”

Project Success and Failure

Can a project be both a success and failure? Actually, yes. Nelson (2005), Bourne (2007), and Shenhar and Dvir (2007) discussed project successes that were later considered failures and failed projects that were considered successes in retrospect. Nelson's focus was on information technology (IT) projects, while Bourne and Shenhar and Dvir looked at a variety of projects.

The discussion of project success (or failure) actually has two components—the criteria by which the project is judged to be a success or failure, and the causes that result in those criteria being met (or missed). There are a variety of views regarding the criteria for project success.

Jugdev and Müller (2005) discussed the evolution of project success criteria and noted “[e]arly mechanistic definitions of project management focused on the variables of time, cost, and scope...” (p. 20). The PMBOK® Guide and others refer to these three variables as the “triple constraint.” Regardless of Jugdev and Müller's findings, these three project success criteria typically represent the primary focus of many project managers.

A part of the attraction of these three criteria may be that they are generally measurable at the time of project completion. However, there are additional criteria that should also be considered at some point beyond the completion of the project, when one assesses the overall project success. Cooke-Davies (2002), as referenced by Jugdev and Müller, differentiated “project management success” from “project success.” Specifically, project management success is measured against the triple constraint while project success is measured against the reasons for undertaking the project in the first place.

Several authors have expanded the project success criteria using various approaches. Bourne (2007) identified three “pillars of project success” (p. 3). The first of these pillars was labeled “Delivering Value.” The criteria in this pillar were cost, time, scope and benefits realization (in essence, the triple constraint plus benefits realization).

Nelson (2005) proposed two broad categories—process-related and outcome-related—with three criteria in each. These are similar to Cooke-Davies’ project management success and project success terminology. Nelson's process-related category was composed of time, cost, and product (in essence, the triple constraint). The outcome-related category included use, learning and value. These outcome-related metrics represent, in a way, stakeholder satisfaction.

Nelson's model was based on the results of 72 IT project retrospective analyses. The model had two broad categories: (1) process-related and (2) outcome-related. Each category had three success criteria. Nelson also performed a more detailed analysis on 15 of the 72 retrospective analyses. Specifically, Nelson asked five stakeholder groups (Project Manager, Project Team, Users, Sponsor, and Top Management) to assess the importance of the six success criteria. Stakeholders internal to the project team reported process-related criteria as the most important while stakeholders external to the project team assigned the top importance to outcome-related criteria.

To summarize thus far, project success results from the attainment of predetermined criteria. Project leadership (internal and external to the project team) must keep all project resources (again, both internal and external to the project team) focused on the project success. However, if the project leadership collectively have different views about what constitutes project success, the project resources will likely experience frustration and inefficiencies (at best). This is a good time to talk about leadership.


What Is Leadership?

A logical place to begin a discussion on leadership is to ask the obvious question: What is leadership? The next logical step is to look at some books to see how they define leadership. That's where the difficulty begins. Figuratively, there is an ocean of leadership books. A recent search of a popular online book company using the keyword “leadership” yielded over 210,000 entries. Suppose for the moment that an average book is about an inch thick. If so, those 210,000+ leadership books would require over 3 miles (or 5 kilometers) of bookshelf space. Indeed, that is a lot.

While it's not likely that there are 210,000+ different definitions of what constitutes leadership, there are more definitions than can easily be listed. It seems everyone has a favorite. Mine starts with a definition of leadership proposed almost three quarters of a century ago when Tead (1935) asked this same question: What is leadership? His answer was, “Leadership is the activity of influencing people to cooperate toward some goal which they come to find desirable” (p. 20). The definition used in this paper is similar: Leadership is a process through which people (e.g., team members) are influenced in some way to accomplish goals, generally group goals. There are three key words in this leadership definition: people, influence, and goals.

People are important because they provide the resources and talent necessary to achieve the goals. Sometimes, thought or opinion leaders are considered leaders. Regardless, the first key word clearly indicates that people are a critical component in the leadership process. There is also generally some common tie among these people; e.g., they are on the same project team or governance committee.

The second key word in the leadership definition is influence. According to, influence is “the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others.” The concept of power is central to this definition. In fact, the terms power and influence are sometimes used interchangeably. So, in essence, the leadership process involves the use of power.

Goal is the third key word in the leadership definition. These goals represent the expected end result of the leadership. This is what the group wants to accomplish as a result of the leadership process. A member of a dysfunctional project team may quip that the team accomplishes its goals in spite of its project leader. While it may be true that the formally designated team leader may not actually be providing leadership, some member of the team generally is.

Leadership is a Function of Both Traits and Behaviors

Effective leaders have certain attributes—both traits/characteristics and behaviors—that distinguish them from others. Effective leadership traits include self-confidence, enthusiasm, persistence, communication skills (including listening) and technical knowledge (e.g., does the leader know what she is talking about?). Leadership behavior is more of a question about when to utilize the various traits and skills. For example, sometimes a leader must be more directive than participative. It varies according to the situation or context. The good news is that none of these are the genetic results of one's birth—they can all be learned.

There has been much research regarding what distinguishes effective leaders. One example is the book by Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 4th edition. Their leadership research, which began in the early 1980s, used an instrument called the Leadership Practice Inventory (LPI). Based on data from millions of leaders, Kouzes and Posner (2007) grouped the practices of effective leaders into five categories, which they described as follows:

  • “Model the Way.”
  • “Inspire a Shared Vision.”
  • “Challenge the Process.”
  • “Enable Others to Act.”
  • “Encourage the Heart.”

In simple terms, these can be viewed as (1) showing and doing rather than telling; (2) ensuring that everyone has a common vision of where the group is heading and why; (3) not accepting the status quo as a default answer; (4) equipping the group to act without the leader being involved in every decision; and (5) remembering that the people involved are individuals and treating them as such.

Are Project Managers and Project Leaders the Same?

A more basic question is, Are managers and leaders the same? This is a hot topic. Drucker (2001) began the discussion with a salient observation: “Leadership is all the rage just now” (p. 268). Then, Drucker went on to state that the requirements for an effective manager are the same as those for an effective leader.

It should be no surprise that others believe strongly that managers and leaders are two very different types of people. There is an old adage: Managers do things right; leaders do the right things. Zaleznik (1989) was an early proponent of this separation: “A manager is concerned with how decisions get made and how communication flows; a leader is concerned with what decisions get made and what he or she communicates” (pp. 19-20).

However, Drucker's and Zaleznik's views are not the polar opposites that they seem at first glance. Specifically, Drucker uses the adjective “effective.” In this context, effective managers and effective leaders may be the same. Because leadership is situational (or contextual), at times the effective leader must exhibit traits and behaviors more commonly associated with managers. It's the individuals who utilize only one set of managerial/leadership skills to the exclusion of others that give rise to the beliefs described earlier.

Now, insert the word “project” before manager or leader—as in project manager or project leader. It's true that some organizations use these terms separately to convey different levels within the organizational hierarchy. In this context, they are primarily position titles. However, the earlier argument about effective managers and effective leaders being the same also applies to effective project managers and effective project leaders.


The Project Leader's Role in Creating Vision

To be consistent with earlier discussions, it's appropriate to begin with another question: What is vision? Kouzes and Posner (2007) defined vision as “an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good” (p. 105). Similarly, Kotter's (1996) definition of vision was “a picture of the future with some implicit or explicit commentary on why people should strive to create that future” (p. 68). These two definitions have some common threads. A vision is described for a future time. It implies that when the vision is achieved, it will be good for the group. Kotter's definition goes a bit further to ensure that the leader (the communicator of the vision) explains why the vision is important.

Recall the three key words from the earlier definition of leadership: people, influence, and goals. In this context, the goals are the desired end result—the vision. Influence represents the vehicle through which the vision and its importance are communicated to the people in the group.

In a project setting, the project leader is responsible for crafting the vision (i.e., the desired end result of the project) in a way that can be communicated and understood. If the project manager/leader abdicates that responsibility to others, then hiseffectiveness within the project is diminished.

The Impact of Vision on Goal Accomplishment

Intuitively, we understand that knowing an overall objective is generally a prerequisite to achieving it. The old adage, “If you don't know where you're going, how will you get there?” is probably familiar. Indeed, one of the habits discussed in the best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey (1989) was to “begin with the end in mind” (p. 95). It is critical for the project stakeholders to understand the vision since the project leader cannot achieve the vision without the work and support of the stakeholders.

Welch (2005), the renowned former CEO of General Electric, observed, “Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it” (p. 67). Based on their research on visionary companies, Collins and Porras (1996) suggested that the vision must be a “vivid description—that is, a vibrant, engaging and specific description of what it will be like” when the vision is achieved (p. 74). They advised, “Think of it as translating the vision from words into pictures, of creating an image that people can carry around in their heads” (p. 74). This all resonates with the earlier discussion of Gladwell's agents of change, particularly the advice about where elements of the proposed change must memorable.


Various Perspectives

Again, in keeping with the pattern established earlier, it's helpful to begin with a definition. According to, an intersection is “a place where two or more roads meet.” Because project success and project leadership aren't roads, per se, another definition may be more appropriate. In mathematics, an intersection is the subset of elements that are common to two or more larger sets. Stated differently and in the context of this paper, the intersection of project success and project leadership is the subset of attributes that are common to both.

The Intersection of Project Success and Leadership

As discussed earlier, project success represents the attainment of certain pre-defined criteria. In essence, these criteria comprise the vision. The most common project success criteria involve its cost, time and scope. However, there is growing opinion that these three criteria are not adequate to fully describe a successful project. Specifically, the attainment of expected benefits following completion of the project is viewed by many as equally important to the triple constraint.

The salient question is how do the project stakeholders understand, accept and move toward the attainment of that vision? The short answer is effective project leadership. Projects involve change, and project leaders are accountable for delivering that change. As discussed earlier, Kotter (1996) suggested leaders utilize an eight-step model for change. In particular, Kotter's step 3 (developing the vision) and step 4 (communicating the vision) suggest that the “intersection” of project success and project leadership involves the vision.

The project success “road” starts with the definition of project completion criteria. However, these must be put in the context of vision terminology—attained at some point in the future and, when attained, will benefit those in the group or organization. Similarly, the project leadership “road” begins with a group of people, a goal and a leader to influence the group in a way to accomplish the goal. There are many ways to exert influence, but providing a path to mutually achieve common goals is critical. The effective leader conveys those common goals and the path for their achievement through the vision. In other words, project vision is at the intersection of project success and project leadership.

Other Considerations/Implications

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

The terms “necessary” and “sufficient” have their origins in logic and mathematics. Simply stated, necessary implies the “thing” must be present for an event to occur. Sufficient implies that if the “thing” is present, then the event will definitely occur. First consider project leadership as the “thing” and project success as the event. Since project leadership (at some level) must be present for project success to occur, it is a necessary condition. However, project leadership alone will not result in project success, so it is not a sufficient condition.

The project vision must also be present to attain project success. (If there isn't vision, then how will one know when the project is completed?) Again, however, project vision alone will also not result in project success. Therefore, project vision is necessary but not sufficient.

The previous section described project vision as the intersection between project success and project leadership. Using the metaphor of a street intersection, one can visualize how both project leadership and project vision are necessary to reach project success.

Insights from Adult Learning Theory for Managing Stakeholder Expectations

Adult learning theory was discussed extensively in The Adult Learner by Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2005). In particular, they used the term “andragogy” to distinguish how adults learn from pedagogy, which is generally focused on how children learn. There are six primary assumptions in the andragogical model. The phrase “need to know” was listed as the first of these key assumptions (p. 64). In an adragogy setting, this means that adult learners want to understand why a topic is important before they invest their energy in learning it.

Similarly, in a project setting, stakeholders want to understand why the project is important before they fully invest their energy in supporting it. Sometimes, the acronym WIIFM (What's In It For Me?) is invoked in an attempt to understand the project's importance. This is where the vision plays a key role. Ideally, the vision clearly articulates why change is needed and how the project helps in achieving the vision. (This implies that vision statements that merely focus on project completion are inadequate.) The project leader has primary responsibilities for both communicating the vision and managing stakeholder expectations. Actually, the two are intertwined. Effective project leaders already know this.


To achieve project success (however it is defined), project leaders must establish and communicate the project vision—what it should be like after the project is completed. This project vision represents the connection, or intersection, between project leadership and project success. Further, it is not effective to merely equate project vision with completing the project scope on schedule and within budget. The vision must include why the project was undertaken in the first place—the business reasons for the project. This implies that the project success criteria must include more than the triple constraint. When this is done, maybe it's more appropriate to describe project success, project vision, and project leadership as the three points of a triangle rather than an intersection, as originally proposed. In any case, the project itself is only a means, not the final destination.


Barker, J. A. (1992). Future edge: Discovering the new paradigms of success. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Bourne, L. (2007, January). Avoiding the successful failure. PMI Global Congress 2007, Asia-Pacific, Hong Kong, China.

Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1996). Building your company's vision. Harvard Business Review, Sep-Oct 1996, 65–77. Reprint No. 96501.

Cooke-Davies, T. (2002). The “real” success factors in projects. International Journal of Project Management, 20(3), 185-190.

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. (1996). Building your company's vision. Harvard Business Review. Sep-Oct 1996, pp. 65-77. Reprint No. 96501

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., III, & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

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Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nelson, R. R. (2005). Project retrospectives: Evaluating project success, failure, and everything in between. MIS Quarterly Executive, 4(3), 361-372.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Shenhar, A. J., & Dvir, D. (2007). Reinventing project management: The diamond approach to successful growth and innovation. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Tead, O. (1935). The art of leadership. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

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Zaleznik, A. (1989). The managerial mystique: Restoring leadership in business. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© William T. Craddocks
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Sydney, Australia



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