Project Management Institute

Leading on purpose--the art of facilitative leadership


The contents of this paper have been summarized from my book, Leading on Purpose—The Art of Facilitative Leadership, which will be published in the fall of 2009.

Project managers are vanguards of change, where resistance is the common currency and dealing with it is the barometer of success. Facilitative leadership is an approach that promotes transforming resistance into advocacy by becoming a thinking partner with your team instead of a thinking replacement. It builds the capacity for self management and the environment for interdependent team play. If project and program management is a team game, then facilitative leadership provides the playbook on how to do it with both character and competence.


This paper has three objectives:

  1. To explain the strengths and weaknesses of the various leadership styles and their appropriate application in the knowledge areas for portfolio, program, and project management
  2. To explain how a facilitative leadership approach improves team effectiveness by building capacity and self-management capability, and by reducing stress while laying a foundation for trust and commitment.
  3. To articulate how a facilitative approach dovetails into the PMI Code of Conduct and significantly increases the probability of success within each of the five Process Groups/ and nine Knowledge Areas.

Vanguards of Change

Project managers are vanguards of change because they are the focal point for introducing new ideas, new products, and new services into the environment. Being the first in, vanguards essentially function as lightning rods for the natural resistance to change that is hard-wired into our humanity. Leading and managing change becomes the fundamental value proposition for a person practicing the religion of project management. In fact, effective change management skills are the hallmark of the highly effective project manager, regardless of industry, country or culture.

The common denominator in this natural resistance to change is people themselves, who may exert resistance for a number of different reasons: they may not understand the change, they may not agree with the change, or, possibly, they simply aren't interested in the change. Project managers who understand the human dynamics behind change know that those who don't understand need to be informed, those who don't agree need to be listened to, and those who aren't interested need to be inspired. Humans are complex. Resistance can materialize from differences in personality and culture and, ultimately, because of plain human nature. Pushing a team to work 12-hour days consistently will no doubt “sow the seeds of discontent” that will crop up at the most inopportune times.

Transforming this resistance into a supportive mindset that I call advocacy, without resorting to the use of positional power, is the simple definition of facilitative leadership. When your team or stakeholder group agrees to become an advocate for your leadership and your vision, you have a much greater chance of optimizing the expected outcomes for all stakeholders. The operative words in this preceding sentence are “all stakeholders.” Facilitative leadership is predicated on the belief that getting results at the expense of the mental and emotional well-being of the team is not an acceptable way to lead.

Imagine leading a team that believes there is no problem it cannot solve. Imagine a team that cares as much about the competing demands as you do and consistently demonstrates their commitment through both word and deed. Imagine a team that embraces conflict and is not afraid to call out one another on process and performance expectations. Imagine a team that openly states their advocacy for you as a leader and your vision of the desired outcome. This is the outcome or impact of facilitative leadership. The rest of the paper goes more deeply into how you make this happen and how your role as vanguard of change should be a team game.

Leadership Primer

Leadership is a Decision, Not a Position

We are all influenced by the type of leadership we are exposed to in our working environment. In a large number of organizations, the position one holds or to which one has been promoted signifies a rank or level of authority in the organization. The level of authority nested in the position communicates a level of power we can wield in getting things done through our team. Simply put, our power comes from our position and this style of leadership is usually referred to as autocratic. This style of leadership has several variations: transactional, bureaucratic, and task-oriented.

There is a second major style type commonly referred to as laissez-faire. Translated into English it means “leave it be.” Essentially this style lets the team get on with their work with minimal interaction with the leader.

The third cluster of leadership styles is commonly referred to as democratic or participative style. While the leader makes the final decision, team members are actively invited to contribute to the decision-making process. This style also has a number of variations—people-oriented, servant, transformational, facilitative, and charismatic. The central theme with this style cluster is team involvement through inspiring, mobilizing, and sustaining actions by the leader.

Facilitative leadership, being one of styles within the participative style cluster, is predicated on the belief that true leadership stems from each member of our team deciding to follow the leader and their proposed vision or view of the future. There are four aspects that make leadership a decision, not a position.

The first is the decision for each of us to accept that leadership is really about influence. Influence, according to Merriam Webster, is “the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.” While command can work in the short term, it generally attracts compliance behavior versus commitment behavior. Given that, as project managers, we are thrust into the middle with sponsors above us, with stakeholders and vendors to our left and our right, and, of course, with our team below us, our opportunity execute “command” type leadership is very low. Even our team has been conscripted from a weak matrix environment, where the real formal power lies with the functional manager. So the way we actually get things done is by influence.

The second part of the decision reflects the reality that your team actually chooses whether they will follow you or not. Their decision is based as much on who you are (your character) as on what you can do (your competence).

The third facet is deciding to lead in a situational manner. While facilitative leadership provides a broad framework to work within, leading people requires flexibility and adaptability. The decision point is learning about a wide range of styles that can be applied as the situation dictates. John C Maxwell, in his book The 360° Leader presents a wonderful imagery of leading from the middle. In the middle (the same as the weak matrix), a leader is expected to be able to lead up to deal with the demands from the executive; lead down to respond to the expectations of the followers; lead left and right to deal with the demands from customers and the expectations of stakeholders. Each demand or expectation is likely to require a situational leadership approach.

The fourth component is deciding to lead from the inside out. Simply put, you can't expect people to follow you if you can't lead yourself. You need to grow as a whole person before you can grow as a whole leader. Critical elements include self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management skills which are embodied in emotional intelligence. Your level of emotional intelligence will be a factor in your success as a leader regardless of the style required for the situation.

Purpose Connects Facilitation and Leadership

Think of facilitative leadership as a pie with three equal parts.

  1. Facilitation as a component brings the process and discipline. Facilitation is about paying attention to what is happening all around you with a view to enable progress and growth.
  2. Leadership as a component brings the vision and passion. Leadership is about communicating an intention to move the progress and growth in a direction for the right reasons.
  3. Purpose as a component fuses facilitation and leadership together. Purpose is about providing focus and clarity on the outcome so that it is optimized for all stakeholders.

Facilitative leadership frames the purpose of a project in a way that enables all stakeholders not only to see the value proposition, but also to buy into its intent and direction because the leader is committed to building a constructive, safe environment where everybody can speak his or her mind, apply one's own strength, and, most importantly, develop one's own personal and professional expertise.

The Facilitative Leadership Approach

The focus of the facilitative leadership approach is on building the capacity for self management in a team and optimizing the outcomes for all stakeholders. It involves a five step process:

Step 1 – Frame Your Purpose
Facilitative leaders are adept at describing the end goal or vision in a way that encourages the team to buy in and pledge their commitment to helping achieve this goal.

Step 2 – Facilitate and Sustain a Constructive Environment
Facilitative leaders create a safe environment that encourages constructive conflict and resistance. Team members depend on the leader to consistently support this environment. This step energizes and sustains an important element of success: trust. The leadership literature over the past few decades consistently promotes trust as the lubricant of teamwork and success. By facilitating an environment where people know that you as a leader will deal effectively with destructive conflict, your team will be more willing to take risks, adapt quicker to change, and ultimately grow as individuals.

Step 3 – Transform Resistance to Advocacy
Facilitative leaders understand that resistance to change is part of human nature. They expect resistance to materialize for a number of potential reasons: people may not understand the change, they may not agree with the change, or, possibly, they simply aren't interested in the change. Whatever the reason, transforming the resistance to advocacy will pay big dividends for all stakeholders because advocates help find ways to eliminate roadblocks and move more quickly in the right direction.

Step 4 – Build Capacity for Self-Management
Facilitative leaders focus on helping team members become more self-sufficient by spending time on being a thinking partner in solving problems as opposed to a thinking replacement. A thinking partner works collaboratively to enable problem resolution, so that team members will get closer to being able to solve similar type problems on their own. A thinking partner also identifies potential thinking “mindfields” of biases, emotions, and habits that can lead to “autopilot thinking.” A thinking replacement, however, simply dictates the solution in the interest of expediency—no learning, no feedback, no encouragement.

Step 5 – Model the Way
Facilitative leaders consistently model the way by setting the example through aligning actions with shared values and inspiring a shared vision, and, ultimately, they enable others to act. The leader uses a four-step process referred to as the T.E.A.M. approach—Teach it, Expect it, Anchor it, and Model it, to improve team knowledge and proficiency. One of the signature skills that a project manager can use in T.E.A.M. is the art of facilitation. It's a good way to both build relationships and achieve results. The real win comes when your team starts looking beyond self-interest and begins to focus on what is best for the greater good of the organization.

A Project and Program Imperative

The PMI Knowledge Areas

Project Integration Management

While widely acknowledged as one of the fundamental elements of successful project management, integration requires efficient and effective communication among all stakeholders. Effective communication is based on both trust and willingness to ask and answer the right questions. The facilitative leadership style promotes the capacity for self-management, where people feel confident in asking the difficult questions, dealing with the potential conflict, and ultimately finding a solution. The integration Knowledge Area requires this kind of focus and energy on the part of the team, as opposed to leaving the task solely to the project manager.

Project Scope Management

Facilitative leadership is predicated on leveraging the power of facilitation to enable people to more effectively do their jobs. The scope Knowledge Area deliverables are at the heart of project management—if you don't get the requirements right, the chance of optimizing the outcomes for all stakeholders is greatly diminished. A strong facilitative leader will be able to pick up quickly on the points of resistance, identify the cause, and then work effectively toward transforming to an advocacy position. An advocacy level of support, when established in the early stages of the life cycle, will pay big dividends downstream in the life cycle where the cost of change is significantly higher.

Project Time Management

This Knowledge Area essentially answers the questions of “When will the project complete?” and “What happens if we change something?” The planning processes that go into creating a valid schedule require interface with a number of stakeholder groups. Mobilizing a team and sustaining their efforts throughout the planning phase require as much leadership as management. While management provides the control, facilitative leadership will provide the mobilization and sustainment elements that will be required for stakeholders to buy into and ultimately advocate the creation of sound project schedules.

Project Cost Management

The facilitative leadership principles that energize a team to buy into producing sound schedules will also apply the cost component. The idea is to influence people to consider managing costs as part of their responsibility by virtue of being part of the team.

Project Quality Management

This knowledge area requires a constructive environment that embraces conflict and resistance. Quality processes typically find problems late in the project life cycle that are a prime source for conflict across a wide spectrum of stakeholders. A strong facilitative leader will orchestrate the resolution of the predictable conflicts in a professional manner while continuing to build stakeholder trust and advocacy. Quality assessments can trigger strong emotional responses from any stakeholder group, especially if more problems are being detected than expected. Facilitative leaders, through Step 4 – “Build Capacity for Self-Management,” and the application of the thinking partner concept, model the concept of thorough analysis prior to action. It is one thing to know that a deliverable is not within standard, it is another to know definitively why.

Project Human Resource Management

Facilitative leadership, including the supporting concept of situational leadership, provides a framework for managing and leading the human resources on the project. Application of the T.E.A.M approach for introducing new skills or improving existing skills is a valuable tool for any project manager in this domain. Becoming a thinking partner with team members not only builds capacity in people for self-management but lays the groundwork for team members to grow during the project assignment. Project team members learn to embrace conflict, understand and leverage personality factors, and, most importantly, learn a personal accountability for growth and development. Ultimately, they will learn the critically of both management and leadership skill sets.

Project Communications Management

While facilitating the process of communication is in itself valuable, the real enabler for this knowledge area is Step 2 – “Facilitate and Sustain a Constructive Environment.” Project managers need to determine expectations of their stakeholders before they can optimize the outcomes for each stakeholder. By developing a trust relationship with all stakeholders where all expectations are surfaced, the probability of success for the downstream communications deliverables such as the communications plan and stakeholder management process are greatly enhanced. Step 5 – ‘Model the Way” is perfectly scripted for the needs of this Knowledge Area.

Project Risk Management

As vanguards of change, project managers must balance risk and reward continuously. Risk management is a team game that requires everyone to be engaged in looking out for the greater good. Once a facilitative leader has mobilized their team, the common vulnerability is sustainment. Most project teams can do a decent risk assessment at the beginning of the project life cycle but fail to sustain vigilance downstream. A facilitative leader understands the critical role of sustainment which comes down to the quality of their relationship with each team member. Team members who have signed up to be an advocate of the project management and their vision (which includes process excellence) are much more likely to pick up on that one very important risk trigger that was overlooked by the leader. It's about volunteered accountability based on the fact that since the leader cares, so do the team members.

Project Procurement Management

This Knowledge Area needs project managers who can both build relationships and achieve results simultaneously. Facilitative leadership is based on the premise that, while vendors have some form of contractual obligation to deliver, the working relationship with their client is very much influenced by the character and competence of the project manager. From the character point of view, the facilitative leader is communicating authenticity and adaptability in dealing with the relationship. From the competence point of view, the facilitative leader is conveying the ability to navigate or facilitate through the procurement process in a way that is both collaborative and flexible and considers the vendor a partner, not a pair of hands. A strong facilitative leader conveys the message that, while the contract rules, it does not have a heart or a personality. A constructive environment where conflict is embraced will make the difference when a problem or opportunity needs to be dealt with outside the contract framework.

PMI Code of Conduct

Facilitative leadership, with its heavy focus on enabling people to be self-managed, character-based inspiration, and openness to embracing conflict and resistance as a key part of mobilizing and sustaining teams, directly supports the intent of the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The foundational values of responsibility, respect, fairness and honesty all dovetail naturally into the tenets of facilitative leadership.

  • The facilitation theme energizes the expectation of taking responsibility and ownership for “the decisions we make, or fail to make…. and the consequences that result.”
  • The constructive environment theme energizes the expectation of treating all stakeholders with respect and to “show a high regard for ourselves and others.”
  • The self-management theme energizes the fairness expectation of being “free from competing self-interest, prejudice, and favoritism.”
  • The “model the way” theme energizes the honesty expectation to “understand the truth.”

Examples of Facilitative Leadership

The Shackleton Story

There are several books on the market chronicling this amazing leader's strength of character and professional competence. My preference is the book by Dennis Perkins called Leading at the Edge. The Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic is one the most exciting adventure stories of polar exploration. It is a story about a leader and a group of explorers who endured conditions of hardship and deprivation more extreme than most of us can imagine.

Shackleton was clearly a facilitative leader who transformed resistance into advocacy to the greatest extent possible given the extreme conditions. He demonstrated the ability to keep the ultimate destination in mind while at the same time being able to mobilize his scarce resources to create momentum for the short-term needs that ultimately ensured survival for him and a number of his men.

A great example of Shackleton's facilitative leadership came when their ship, called “Endurance,” sunk. At this point the crew's anxiety level could have been over the top, but because Schackleton focused and channeled their energy, any resistance was transformed into advocacy despite the reality that some of their activities did not produce positive results. Through their 18 months together, he created a team with such strong bonds, that, on the verge of starvation, they were willing to share their last rations. It was a team that worked together against all extraordinary odds to prevail over significant obstacles. Although he failed to cross Antarctica, he did deliver on his promise contained in the original advertisement for the expedition: Those who sailed on Endurance did receive honor and recognition.

Despite his detractors, most believe he embodied everything a leader should be.

The Story of Alexander the Great

Alexander of Macedon conquered most of the known world in 320 BC and in many respects could be a poster child for facilitative leadership. He framed his purpose in way that caught the attention and hearts of his army. He made his vision easy to understand and connect with emotionally. Alexander's “never panic, never quit” attitude set the pace and attitude for both his generals and his men.

He communicated his core values in both deed and word, and he led based on who he was versus what he owned or controlled. His core values of service and respect for his men won the respect and loyalty of his men regardless of the situation. A case in point was his willingness after each battle to work with his surgeons to put solders out of their misery humanely but not before giving them some appropriate acknowledgement of their contribution.

Like any strong facilitative leader he concentrated on the big picture while at the same time facilitated and sustained a constructive environment where his generals were encouraged to contribute to both strategic and tactical battle planning. He was also a master at crisis management and facilitating quick changes both on the battlefield and politically.

Like any great leader, Alexander had flaws and critics, but he remains today an excellent example of an influential leader who left a powerful legacy of capturing the hearts and minds of his men.

The Panama Canal Story

The Panama Canal was a US$300 million-plus project completed in 1914. Although the project had several project managers over its 15-year life cycle, an engineer by the name of George Washington Goethals was chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt to project manage the last 7 years of the initiative. Goethals was educated at West Point where he graduated second in a class of 52 people, and was a natural borne teacher. Before being appointed the project manager for the Canal project, he served with distinction in a number of engineering projects for the U.S. army.

Goethals exemplifies the premise that strong leaders are teachers and coaches. When asked what was the most difficult aspect of delivering the Canal, he said, “the human element.” Like all strong facilitative leaders, trust was the cornerstone of his personal appeal. With as many as 45,000 persons, of many nationalities and speaking a variety of languages, working on the canal, Goethals made himself accessible to all, heard complaints, and visited every aspect of the project. This is true facilitating and sustaining of a constructive environment.

The Panama Canal was a major accomplishment in its day, and Goethals, true to his team-oriented style, made sure that an important contributor to the success of the Canal, John Stevens, who built the project WBS before he left due to illness, was appropriately recognized in the official opening ceremony.

George Washington Goethals was a great example of an excellent project manager who was also a powerful leader.


Project managers are vanguards of change, where resistance is the common currency and dealing with it is the barometer of success. This prominent role played by project management is one of the reasons why Gregory Balestrero, Project Management Institute president and CEO, recently changed the title of a high profile PMI communication from Leadership in Project Management to Leadership Through Project Management.

Facilitative leadership is an approach that promotes transforming resistance into advocacy by becoming a thinking partner with your team instead of a thinking replacement. It builds the capacity for self-management and the environment for interdependent team play. Facilitative leadership supports the intent of each of the nine Knowledge Areas and underpins the four key values of responsibility, respect, fairness, and honesty. If project management is a team game; then facilitative leadership provides the playbook on how to do it with both character and competence.

The playbook is straightforward: leadership is a decision where character matters and people matter because, at the end of day, all leaders will be judged by their team on the basis of not what they accomplished, but rather how they accomplished it.

The question is: What kind of leadership legacy do you want to be remembered by?

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.

© 2009, Bill Richardson
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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