Leadership essentials for project management professionals (PMPs)®

Abstract

The journey to project management excellence continues beyond earning a Project Management Professional (PMP®) to include practicing project leadership. However, even highly skilled PMPs find success limited until they can sift through the bewildering amount of leadership information and identify actions essential for them at this point in their careers.

This is a how-to paper. It describes how PMP® project managers can take specific leadership actions that will contribute to project success. This paper defines project leadership, draws from the large body of PMI-sponsored and related project leadership research, describes the leadership role in high performance teams, gives emphasis to sources of power for project leaders, and provides methods for project leaders to amplify their power. A list of specific project leader actions is included. A central theme is that PMP® project managers can become successful project leaders by taking the actions identified.

Situation

The Problem

A recently published book (Taylor, 2011) begins with a sentence that states, “There are a lot of footprints in the snow when it comes to advice on leadership.” Indeed, there is a bewildering amount of potential leadership advice in written form available. This point can be illustrated by examining the book section found on Amazon.com; approximately sixty-eight thousand books are identified in response to the search term “leadership.” And not all of the leadership advice is consistent; it certainly is not tailored to the needs of the project manager who recently earned his/her PMP®. Without a doubt, the footprints in the snow are not all headed in the same direction. So, what is a PMP® who is looking to advance to higher levels of success to do? Which leadership advice is most appropriate at this point in the PMP®'s career?
This dilemma is illustrated in Exhibit 1; George, who is using effective project management practices, has noted that something appears to be missing. What is George to do? Although he seems to have a solid base of project management skills, he also faces some challenges leading his project team. Will his focus on the core knowledge areas contained in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide-Fourth Edition), which got him this far, get him much further? Will he respond adequately to his emerging awareness of the importance of leadership in the success of his projects? Will George be distracted by the huge number of the footprints in the snow?

The Problem

Exhibit 1 – The Problem

The Context

The context for project leadership in this paper is being addressed in the context of project success. Indeed, the underlying principle is that project leadership by the project manager is necessary for project success. This dependence raises the interesting question about the relationship between project leadership and project success. Just how important is project leadership to project success? The answer depends on how project success is defined. Research published by the Project Management Institute (Turner, 2006) indicates that “complexity appears to be the most distinguishing factor when it comes to different competencies for different project types.” Consider a project to write a report with a success definition focused on getting the report completed on time. Now consider a project to send a manned rocket into outer space with a success definition, as established by President George Bush when speaking to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2004, to “lift our national spirit.” These two entirely different examples of the definition of project success illustrate a broad range in project complexity. They also illustrate a broad range in the need for project leadership as shown in Exhibit 2. The project manager responsible for lifting national spirit will find that project leadership will be much more important in achieving project success then will the project manager for the completion of a written report.

Project Leadership

Exhibit 2 – Project Leadership

The context for the treatment of project leadership in this paper falls in the continuum between the extremes of these two examples. The context for the treatment of project leadership in this paper is focused on the project manager who is comfortable with much of the knowledge represented by the PMBOK® Guide and who understands that integrating leadership skills into the application of that knowledge is essential for success on projects with expanding definitions of success. After taking a brief look at a definition for project leadership, this paper addresses a highly selective list of related theories, models, standards, and studies. The paper then builds on that body of work to provide insight into high performance teams and into sources of power available for a project leader to use. A how-to table is provided that lists specific actions that a project leader can take to act on the body of related work to build a high performance project team.

A Project Leadership Definition

Definitions of leadership are plentiful. Great minds and famous authors have enlightened and amused us for millennia with their characterizations of leadership. A compelling project leadership definition can be found in events that took place a century ago.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his men survived the wreck of their ship, “Endurance,” which was crushed in the Antarctic ice, which left them stranded 1,200 miles from civilization with no means of communication and no hope of rescue for the next two years (Morrell & Capparell, 2001). When the ice began to break up, Shackleton set out to save them all, undertaking a heroic 800-mile trip across the frigid South Atlantic in little more than a rowboat. Unlike other polar expeditions, every man survived - not only in good health, but also in good spirits - due to Shackleton's leadership. Here, then, we have a highly dramatic example of a classic failure of a project when measured by the “triple constraint” (completion of the project on time, within budget, and at an acceptable level of quality): the expedition never even reached Antarctica, much less crossed it, as had been its purpose; the trip had been scheduled to take months, not years; and losing the entire ship was certainly never a part of the planned costs. Yet in spite of the failure of the project itself, the expedition impressively demonstrates an important quality of a great project manager: project leadership. The journals of the men that Shackleton led on the fateful Endurance expedition contained numerous expressions of their inner thoughts and feelings, many of which included the sentiment that it was “the best time of their lives.” That's right; in spite of unbelievable hardship the men felt like it was the best time of their lives because of Schackleton's leadership. Business improvement writers and scholars have found Shackleton's story to be a valuable case study applicable to the office environment. In this example we see project leadership being practiced with an eye constantly on the true criterion for project success (in this case, not on reaching the South Pole, but instead on building the foundation for enduring future successes).

We understand that project leadership is defined in terms of the enduring impact on the project team.

Related Leadership Work

Good News

We have seen that the role of the project leader increases in importance as the project complexity increases. But what is the role of the project leader? What is the project leader's primary responsibility? In a notable new book about the leadership principles for project success (Juli, 2011) the author's message to the project leader about his/her role is that “you have to ignite this fire of performance and you have to set boundaries within the team for it to function.” In an equally notable, recently published book (Bull, 2011), the author makes a similar point about the project leader's role by stating that“leaders must be able to demonstrate to their teams why they should be committed…best way leaders can get commitment from their followers is by demonstrating a high level of commitment themselves.”

Now the question arises about how leadership can be practiced in the context of project management. The good news is that PMI® and others have published some significant work relating projects and project leadership. We can examine this body of work and extract leadership essentials for PMPs.

Servant Leadership

In Shackleton's story, we witness leadership practiced with constant attention to the needs of others, and we view what is referred to as “servant leadership” (Greenleaf, 1977). A servant leadership trend is well underway; thirty-five of Fortune magazine's “100 Best Companies to Work For” practice the principles of servant leadership (Hunter, 2004, p. 18). In servant leadership, the leader is a servant first. Servant leaders understand that they must meet the needs of their followers in order to enable them to meet their full potential. Servant leaders strive to respect and motivate their followers, using their influence to inspire followers to reach new heights. They lead from behind using empathetic listening skills, using persuasion, and building community within the project team.

Servant leadership is particularly relevant for project managers who find themselves in situations where they have limited authority and control over the people they must rely on to accomplish the project work. These project managers recognize that their core and extended project teams, and their key stakeholders, have competing priorities for their time and talent. These project managers understand the limitations of trying to use autocratic and authoritarian leadership styles and are favorably disposed to adopting more effective leadership approaches.

Competency Framework

A framework for the definition, assessment, and development of project manager competence that provides an overall view of the skills and behaviors one would need to develop competence as a project manager has been provided by PMI® (PMI, 2007). This document includes leading as a unit of competence (p. 28-29) to guide, inspire, and motivate team members and other project stakeholders to manage and effectively overcome issues to achieve project objectives. Elements are included to create a team environment that promotes high performance, to build and maintain effective relationships, to motivate and mentor project team members, to take accountability for delivering the project, and to use influencing skills when required.

While attention is paid in this framework document to the leader of a project team through all phases of the project life cycle, particular emphasis is provided for the phase to monitor and control the project. In this phase the management of the project team explicitly includes team building, team satisfaction, and team performance. Here we see project manager actions being influenced, not only by the explicit project objectives, but also by the needs of the project team.

Transformational Leadership

The transformational leadership approach, which has become one of the dominant theories of organizational leadership, has now been shown to correlate with project success (Dominick, 2007). In this study, we learn that all four of the examined measures of project success were significantly more likely to occur when transformational leadership was used by the project manager; projects were more likely to be completed efficiently, projects were more likely to be completed effectively, the client was more likely to be satisfied, and the underlying business objectives were more likely to be achieved.

Transformational leadership behaviors are about coping with and even inspiring change; transformational leaders motivate followers by heightening their awareness of task outcomes and encouraging them to transcend self-interests for the good of the team (Bass, 1985, p. 23). Followers feel trust, admiration, loyalty, and respect toward the leader. As a result, transformational leaders broaden and elevate followers' goals, providing them with confidence to go beyond minimally acceptable expectations. Transformational leadership also implies a more positive personal connection between leaders and followers. The study results suggest that project managers can sometimes compensate for a lack of formal authority by developing their transformational leadership skills.

Leadership Theory and Practice

Jeffery Pinto, who has studied and written about project leadership for many years, provides us with a comprehensive picture of the role that leadership plays in project management. In his book about project leadership theory and practice (Pinto, 1998), he writes that “the best scheduling techniques, risk management, scope development, project control, and resource provisions will not ensure project success in the face of poor project leadership.” And the number one key leadership point topping his list is to learn the team members' needs (p. 134-135).

The objective of learning the needs of each individual team member is to understand what makes each person tick, what tasks each team member craves or loathes, and what motivates each team member. Armed with that level of understanding, the project leader can then match the work at hand with the team members' strengths and passions to help team members grow their skills. It is instructive to note that the project leader can also tailor the leadership style to the needs of each individual team member by being more directive in the early phases of a task by telling the team member what to do, and being more facilitative as the task gets underway when the team member is more comfortable with his/her assignment.

Situational Leadership

The value of adjusting the style of the leader to the individual and situation, as recommended by Pinto, is a well-established and accepted approach. Hersey and Blanchard, with the groundbreaking Management of Organizational Behavior first published four decades ago, provide us with a powerful model for assessing the organizational state and applying a leadership style to fit the situation (Hersey, 2007). The fundamental underpinning of the situational leadership theory is that there is no single “best” style of leadership. Effective leadership is task-relevant, and the most successful leaders adapt their leadership style to the maturity of the individual or group they are attempting to lead/influence. Situational leaders address different people and different situations in different ways; one size does not fit all.

In Exhibit 3, maturity is assessed using a four-point scale, ranging from a general lack of willingness and ability to a high level of willingness and ability.

  • M1 - They generally lack the specific skills required for the job in hand and are unable and unwilling to do or to take responsibility for this job or task.
  • M2 - They are still unable to take on responsibility for the task being done; however, they are willing to work at the task.
  • M3 - They are experienced and able to do the task but lack the confidence to take on responsibility.
  • M4 - They are experienced at the task and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. They are able and willing not only to do the task but to also take responsibility for the task.

These leadership styles are characterized by according to their degree of supportive relationship behavior and degree of directive task behavior.

  • S1: Telling—The relationship is characterized by one-way communication in which the leader defines the roles of the individual or group and provides the what, how, why, when, and where to do the task.
  • S2: Selling—While the leader is still providing the direction, he or she is now using two-way communication and providing the socio-emotional support that will allow the individual or group being influenced to buy into the process.
  • S3: Participating—The decision-making about aspects of how the task is accomplished is now shared; the leader is providing less task behavior while maintaining high relationship behavior.
  • S4: Delegating—The leader is still involved in decisions; however, the process and responsibility has been passed to the individual or group. The leader stays involved to monitor progress.
Situational Leadership

Exhibit 3 – Situational Leadership

Certification Standards

A number of notable organizations have developed project management related standards that are used by practitioners worldwide to guide their professional actions. These standards, which are largely competency-based, have been examined and treatment of project leadership has been noted. Those standards that do include a significant treatment of project leadership do so from the team-based, servant-based, situational-based, transformation-based perspective that has been so pronounced in the other related work summarized in this paper.

  • A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fourth Edition: Mention is made of leadership as “important through all phases of the project life cycle” (PMI, 2008, p. 240). The document states that the body of knowledge associated with this topic is too in-depth to cover in the publication.
  • A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide) – Version 2.0: Leadership and influencing is included as one of the underlying competencies that support the practice of business analysis (IIBA, 2009, p. 151). The document states that the business analyst must understand the individual needs and capabilities of each team member and stakeholder and how those can be most effectively channeled in order to reach the shared objectives.
  • Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers (FAC-P/PM): Leadership is included as one of five core competency sets; significant elaboration is included (FAI, 2007). Required skills include problem solving, conflict management, interpersonal skills, resilience, flexibility, accountability, written communication, customer service, oral communication, team building, political savvy, strategic thinking, decisiveness, creativity/innovation, developing others, entrepreneurship, external awareness, and vision.
  • IPMA Competence Baseline (ICB) – Version 3.0: Leadership is included as one of the elements of behavioral competence associated with project management (IPMA, 2006, p. 86-88); it is described as a vital competence. The document states that leadership involves providing direction and motivating others in their role or task to fulfill the project's objectives, that it is required throughout the life of a project, and that leadership is particularly important when a project encounters problems, when change is required, or where there is uncertainty about a course of action. The document includes the need for the project manager to know what leadership styles exist, and to decide which one is appropriate for the project, the team being managed, and senior management.
  • Projects In Controlled Environments 2 (PRINCE2®) – 2009 Refresh: Mention is made of leadership as “immensely important in project management but impossible to codify in a method” (OGC, 2009, p. 7). The document states that leadership styles vary considerably, and there are many effective leadership models.

High Performance Teams

Emerging Pattern

Upon examination of the body of related leadership work, an important pattern emerges. Emphasis is given to the concept that projects succeed through the efforts of a team, that the role of the leader is to support the needs of the team members, and that the nature of the leadership support will vary as a function of the situation. Simply stated, this pattern is based on servant leadership integrated with situational leadership. In projects, one of the dominant situational variables is the stage of the development of the project team during the life cycle of the project. As projects advance through the initiating, planning, executing, and closing phases in their life cycle, the project team members also advance through stages of team development. When groups of individuals initially gather to work on the early aspects of a project, they represent a situation that is much different from when an experienced team focuses on well-defined activities later in the life of a project.

Leadership Role

In what has become a de facto standard for describing and understanding team development, psychologist Bruce Tuckman formulated the “forming, storming, norming, and performing” concept for team development stages (Tuckman, 1965). A summary of these four stages, together with the leadership role for each of these stages, is contained in Exhibit 4. As groups of individuals progress through the stages, they evolve into a team—occasionally into a high-performance team.

High-performance teams are highly focused on their goals. Their team members have specific roles and complementary talents and skills aligned with and committed to a common purpose; these team members consistently show high levels of collaboration and innovation that produce superior results (Wellins, 1991). The high-performance team is regarded as tight-knit, focused on their goal and nothing else. Team members are so devoted to their purpose that they will surmount any barrier to achieve the team's goals. Within the high-performance team, people are highly skilled and are able to interchange their roles. Leadership within the team is not vested in a single individual. Instead, the leadership role is taken up by various team members, according to the need at that moment in time. High-performance teams have robust methods of resolving conflict efficiently, so that conflict does not become a roadblock to achieving the team's goals. There is a sense of clear focus and intense energy within a high-performance team. Collectively, the team has its own consciousness, indicating shared norms and values. The team feels a strong sense of accountability for achieving their goals. Team members display high levels of mutual trust towards each other.

Leadership Role On High Performance Team

Exhibit 4 – Leadership Role On High Performance Team

Power for the Project Leader

Understand and Use Power

Project leaders have at their disposal an extremely effective tool for working within an organization to build a high-performance project team. Once the project leader has drawn from the leadership-related body of work presented in this paper, and once he/she has formulated actions to apply this body of work, he/she can then use this tool to successfully carry out those actions. This tool is power. It is through project leadership power that actions can be taken. What actions? Power that can drive actions to build a high-performance project team—the actions for project success.

Through the understanding and use of power, the project leader can accomplish a tremendous amount. Power refers to the ability of the project leader to influence others to act for the benefit of his/her project; it is a resource that enables compliance or commitment from others (Pinto, 1998). A number of well-established models for power within an organizational setting have been developed; one of the classic models lists five bases of power (French, 1959):

  • Positional power: Also called “legitimate power,” it is the power of an individual because of the relative position and duties of the holder of the position within an organization. Legitimate power is formal authority delegated to the holder of the position. It is usually accompanied by various attributes of power such as uniforms, offices, etc. This is the most obvious, and also the most important, kind of power.
  • Referent power: The power or ability of individuals to attract others and build loyalty. It's based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. A person may be admired because of specific personal traits, and this admiration creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence. The person under power desires to identify with these personal qualities and gains satisfaction from being an accepted follower.
  • Expert power: An individual's power deriving from the skills or expertise of the person and the organization's needs for those skills and expertise. Unlike the others, this type of power is usually highly specific and limited to the particular area in which the expert is trained and qualified.
  • Reward power: This power refers to the degree to which the individual can give others a reward of some kind such as benefits, time off, desired gifts, promotions or increases in pay or responsibility. It depends on the ability of the power wielder to confer valued material rewards. This power is obvious but also ineffective if abused.
  • Coercive power: This type refers to the application of negative influences. It includes the ability to demote or to withhold other rewards. The desire for valued rewards or the fear of having them withheld ensures the obedience of those under power. Coercive power tends to be the most obvious but least effective form of power as it builds resentment and resistance from the people who experience it.

We can recognize that as project leaders we rarely have significant amounts of positional power; our formal authority is usually quite limited within the organization. However, we do have opportunities to develop and use sources of power that others don't. Specifically, we are the experts; no one knows more about our project than we do. This knowledge can serve as the basis for opinions, decisions, and actions that are rational and well-supported. Through communication early and often with key stakeholders about the project and tailoring that information to the specific needs of each stakeholder, project leaders can establish themselves as experts about the subject they know best—their projects. Over time, the recognition of their expertise will grow, and so will the dependence by key stakeholders on this expertise; this represents a growth in the project leader's expert power. At some point, this power will have grown to the point where the project leader is called upon to provide expertise about a topic that is less related to his/her actual project; this is the point in time where his/her power has grown so significantly that he/she can begin using their power to accomplish project leadership actions related to building and maintaining their high-performance team. A second source of power at the project leader's disposal is their perceived association with others who are influential: referent power. Successful project leaders develop and cultivate relationships with a vast array of stakeholders that extend far beyond the immediate bounds of their project. The fact that so many projects are managed in matrix organizations further enhances this effect. The expert and referent sources of power, particularly for a project leader, can distinguish the actions we want to take from the blur of other activity in the organization.

Project Leader Power

Exhibit 5 – Project Leader Power

Amplify Power

A project leader can build upon his or her power by developing and harnessing the power of project sponsors and champions. Project sponsorship has been established as a key responsibility with defined duties (Englund, 2006). These responsibilities include seller, coach and mentor, filter, business judge, motivator, negotiator, protector, and, most importantly, supporter. For those project leaders unable to round up all of the necessary sponsor support, an alternative has emerged: the project champion. In this person we have a key lieutenant of the sponsor who is likely more approachable and accessible then the sponsor (Campbell, 2007). We have an individual with authority who is trusted by the sponsor and who can work directly with the project manager, and we have a connection path for the project manager to sources of higher authority in the organization.

Form a Project Management Council

It is helpful, if not necessary, to further amplify the leader's power. This approach can work in a broad range of situations and across a broad range of power levels. The approach is to form a Project Management Council. It can amplify the power of the project manager to get executives to act for project success. It is a favored approach (Crawford, 2002; Englund, 2003; Bolles, 2002). The voice of a project leader who is supported by a robust range of other voices is much more likely to be heard—and to be acted upon. Referred to variously as a project support office, project management working group, project management office, strategic project office, project management center of excellence, and project management community of practice, these are organizations formed explicitly for the purpose of focusing on collecting converging opinions about project-related actions, including those to be taken by the project leader. An ideal project management council is comprised entirely of motivated project management practitioners who have volunteered for the assignment. They are experienced and visionary change agents. As thought leaders they know how project management is done and how it should be done. They care deeply about their chosen profession and are concerned with the well-being of other project managers.

A project management council can and should serve as a link between project managers and executives. Sizing it to no more than about a dozen people, having it chaired and/or sanctioned by an executive, and limiting its authority will help it gain recognition for the good it can do and help it counter many of the stereotypical negatives associated with groups of this type that exist outside the formal organization chart. Having it focus broadly on the entire organizational system as it relates to projects and project management raises its legitimacy. This group's ability to make recommendations to executives and provide help with implementing the executive actions positions it to have enduring value. Precluding it from control over decisions and resources minimizes the possibility that it will be viewed as a threat to established organizational decision-making mechanisms. Limiting the term of its members to a year or possibly two will ensure a constant flow of fresh perspectives and ideas.

Project Leader Actions

Synthesis

The progression in this paper is toward action. After exposure to and understanding of the body of related work presented in this paper, the project manager can analyze and synthesize the provided information and identify specific actions that can be taken to move closer to becoming the leader of a high-performance project team. This list would address the leadership essentials for PMPs, and would be a “how-to” list.

Alternately, consider this list—the author's synthesis of the information provided in this paper tempered by project management and project leadership experiences. It reflects the following:

  • Needs of the PMP® looking to sift through bewildering quantities of conflicting information to begin advancing his/her project leadership;
  • Context of the increasing importance of project leadership for increasingly complex projects;
  • Definition of project leadership in terms of the enduring impact on the project team;
  • Increasingly effective practice of servant leadership;
  • Recognition of the effectiveness of transformational leadership in achieving project success;
  • Importance of meeting the needs of project team members;
  • Impact of adjusting leadership style to the team member and project situation; and
  • Benefit of developing and amplifying project leader power.

How-To List

The columns in the list in Exhibit 6 progress from what the project leader can do, to how the project leader can do it, to specific actions the project leader can take to get it done.

Project Leader Actions

Exhibit 6 – Project Leader Actions

Conclusion

Progress Is Incremental and Cumulative

Project managers who would like to continue their journey beyond earning a PMP® to include practicing project leadership have a bewildering amount of leadership information to sift through to identify actions essential for them at this point in their careers. Since they understand that the importance of project leadership increases with the level of project complexity, they are motivated to identify and adopt key project-related leadership techniques. These techniques, which have been summarized in this paper, are situational and transformational, and are largely focused on serving the needs of the project team. Implementing these techniques requires the project leader to develop and use power.

This paper includes a list of what can be done to practice project leadership, how it can be done, and the specific actions that can be taken to get it done.

Progress, when it comes to performing as a project leader, is incremental and cumulative. It does not come all at once, and it does not occur in all elements of the job or in all individuals at the same pace. Since by definition we are dealing with behavior and change, we must recognize that we are dealing with what is usually a slow evolution rather than a sudden revolution. Individuals have spent years becoming who they are. The good news is that the cumulative effects of modestly-paced, genuine project leadership action are enduring.

References

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Crawford, J. (2002). The strategic project office. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Dominick, P., Zvi, A., & Lechler, T. (2007). Human side of project leadership—Transformational leadership and project success. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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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.

© 2011, Michael O'Brochta, PMP
Originally published as part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, Texas

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