What the Defense Systems Management College has learned from ten years of project leadership research



The traditional view of project management emphasizes both the technical and management expertise required of project managers. The words by themselves, project and management, imply a technically complex effort for which organization, planning and control are required. However, an emerging view of the project management profession is that while technical and management expertise are important, the primary role of project managers is to provide the leadership focus on their projects. This is becoming even clearer as current project managers are forced to cope simultaneously with both internal project and external market shifts such as global competition, rapid technological obsolescence, unpredictable organizational transformations, and unstable international political and economic conditions.

Many project managers fail to recognize the shifting role demands over their careers. Most project managers begin their careers with a strong technical or functional focus. By demonstrating their technical abilities, project managers are frequently promoted to supervise or manage other technical professionals. But when project managers are asked to take on large, complex or one-of-a-kind projects, technical and management skills alone are not sufficient to ensure success. Leadership skills become the predominant focus. This gradual career evolution toward leadership is depicted in Exhibit 1. The shifts between the dashed lines from a technical to a managerial and then to a leadership focus are actually quite dramatic and call for significant new skills development. The underlying question to be addressed in this paper is what are the specific leadership skills required to be successful as a project manager.

While much has been written about leadership in the literature, there is some question about its applicability to project managers. The following excerpt from the classic War and Peace (Tolstoy, 1993) illustrates the idealized view of military leadership. There would appear to be little here which would apply to project managers.

Napolean was standing a little in front of his marshalls, on a little gray horse, wearing the same blue overcoat he had worn throughout the Italian campaign. He was looking intently and silently at the hills, which stood up out of the sea of mist, and the Russian troops moving across them in the distance, and he listened to the sounds of firing in the valley. His face-still thin in those days-did not stir a single muscle; his gleaming eyes were fixed intently on one spot…. When the sun had completely emerged from the fog and was glittering with dazzling brilliance over the fields and the mist (as though he had been waiting for that to begin the battle), he took his glove off his handsome white hand, made a signal with it to his marshalls, and gave the orders for the battle to begin.

Exhibit 1. Project Management Career: Balance of Expertise

Project Management Career: Balance of Expertise

Exhibit 2. Defense Project Manager Research Studies

Defense Project Manager Research Studies

Perhaps a more relevant analogy to the project manager's job is found Dallas, Texas Mayor Erik Jonsson's account of what it is like to be the mayor of a large city (Kotter & Lawrence, 1974).

Being a mayor is like walking on a moving belt while juggling. Right off you've got to walk pretty fast to stay even. After you've been in office a short time, people start throwing wads of paper at you. So now you've got to walk, juggle, and duck too. Then, the belt starts to move faster, and people start to throw wooden blocks at you. About the time you're running like mad, juggling and ducking stones, someone sets one end of the belt on fire. Now, if you can keep the things you are juggling in the air, stay on the belt, put out the fire, and not get seriously injured, you've found the secret to the job.

Although this account matches the crisis management atmosphere of many of my project management experiences, the question remains as to where leadership can or should be included in the above example.

The nature of the leadership challenge facing defense project managers has been extensively researched by the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC) along with other Defense Acquisition University schools. This paper summarizes the results of five separate research studies conducted from 1989 to 1999. The first two studies were conducted by DSMC (Cullen & Gadeken, 1990; Gadeken, 1991). Then, three follow-on validation studies (Armstrong, 1999; Best & Kobylarz, 1991; McVeigh, 199) were performed by graduate students at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and the Naval Post Graduate School (NPGS). All of the studies were based on the premise that the best way to find out what it takes to be a good project manager is to analyze a current group of outstanding project managers and identify what they do that makes them so effective. The research studies involved both surveys and in-depth personal interviews of a broad cross-section of project managers as illustrated in Exhibit 2.

This paper will use the research findings to focus on four key areas which must be considered in developing successful project managers: defining project manager leadership competencies, assessing the leadership competencies, methods of developing these competencies, and selecting project managers who possess the necessary leadership competencies.

The Research Approach

Any job can be considered from two perspectives: tasks and personal competencies. Tasks are a break out of the job itself and are usually are defined in terms of the minimum requirements for acceptable performance. By contrast, personal competencies describe what the person brings to the job that allows him or her to do the job in an outstanding way. These competencies may include motives, traits, aptitudes, knowledge, or skills. For any given job defined as a set of tasks, personal competencies are what superior performers have or do which allow them to achieve superior results.

A systematic approach to job analysis should consider both tasks and personal competencies as shown in Exhibit 3. The inclusion of personal competencies pushes beyond the minimum job requirements to what makes for superior performance. DSMC chose to study personal competencies of project managers rather than use traditional methods like task analysis and expert panels that had been employed in the past. The reasoning is that for more complex jobs such as project managers in defense acquisition, the more important it is to study what each project manager brings to the job that results in outstanding performance. Exhibits 3, 4, 5, 9, and 10 are provided courtesy of Cambria Consulting in Boston, MA who were employed as a support contractor for the initial DSMC research studies (Klemp, 1982).

As an example, consider the difference between a capable pilot and a fighter ace. The basic skills of flying can be considered of moderate complexity on the Exhibit 3 diagram and are probably amenable to a task-analysis approach. On the other hand, a fighter ace or “top-gun” pilot would be difficult to characterize based on tasks alone. This is especially true if you were interested in what differentiates the ace from the other capable pilots in the squadron. This is where the analysis of personal competencies is of most value. One could argue that a project manager's job is on the right side of the complexity scale in Exhibit 3 along with the fighter ace and, therefore, is also most suitable for analysis of personal competencies.

Using critical incident interviews and detailed follow-up surveys, the selected research process gets beneath espoused theories about what it takes to do a job, to what the best performers actually do. Past studies (Klemp, 1982) have shown that job experts are often wrong in their assumptions about what it takes to do a job well. This is illustrated in Exhibits 4 and 5, which summarize a private-sector research study on new product development managers in different divisions of the General Electric Company. At the start of the research project, a panel of company new product development experts was assembled and asked to predict the competencies that would characterize top performers (see Exhibit 4). Then, selected top performers from the different divisions (based on results achieved) were interviewed and surveyed. The research findings confirmed only one of the expert panel competencies and found additional competencies the experts had not identified (see Exhibit 5).

Even the top performers themselves are often unaware (“unconsciously competent”) of what they do that makes them so effective. An interesting example from Training Magazine (Gilbert, 1988) illustrates this point. Two researchers interviewed the famous American College football Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama and asked what he did that made him such a great coach. Coach Bryant stressed recruitment, motivation and teamwork in his interview. However, instead of immediately writing up the findings from their interview notes, the researchers stayed on for several days and actually observed Coach Bryant in practice sessions and during games. What they found was that Coach Bryant didn't actually do most of the things he alluded to in the interviews. They also discovered other “new” behaviors such as detailed observation of player performance and immediate feedback that actually accounted for Coach Bryant's success. As the article states, “exemplary performers differ very little from average ones, but that the differences are enormously valuable.”

Exhibit 3. The More Complex the Job

The More Complex the Job

Exhibit 4. The Necessary Competencies (What the Experts Thought)

The Necessary Competencies (What the Experts Thought)

Exhibit 5. The Necessary Competencies (What the Research Found)

The Necessary Competencies (What the Research Found)

Exhibit 6. Research Process

Research Process

Exhibit 7. The Best Project Managers

The Best Project Managers

The competency research process is outlined in Exhibit 6 and has several benefits. It identifies the characteristics that distinguish outstanding project managers from their contemporaries. The research focuses on the critical few characteristics that make the most difference in job performance. These characteristics are defined in terms of observable job-related behavior rather than abstract concepts. Finally, the resulting leadership model serves as an excellent communication tool and training model to move organizations toward their goal of creating a cadre of top performing project leaders.

Project Leadership Competencies

With the 1990 DSMC research study as a model (Cullen & Gadeken, 1990), the subsequent research studies found a common set of competencies with some variation in rank order. These competencies were characteristics of top performers, and they were not further classified into management or leadership skills. The DSMC study of United Kingdom (U.K.) defense project managers (Gadeken, 1991) validated these same competencies, with U.K. project managers favoring more of the analytical rather than interpersonal skills. Several underlying themes emerged from the set of competencies found in the research. These themes are listed in Exhibit 7 and discussed below along with selected quotes from the project manager interviews.

Strong Commitment to a Clear Mission

Top performing project managers are first and foremost mission focused and results oriented. They take personal ownership of their projects in a manner almost approaching the quest of a medieval knight going off to the crusades. They model their personal commitment with such dedication and enthusiasm that it permeates their project team, external customers, and support organizations. Here is the way one Air Force civilian project manager described the project goal to his team:

Remember your primary mission. Keep saying that to yourself. Your job is to field a system that will put electrons on the (enemy). Everything else is incidental to that and not important.

In the words of one Army project manager:

I felt frustrated. But at the same time I feel like it is such good thing we are doing for the Army that it is worth all the frustration and hard work and whatever else we need to do to make it successful.

Long Term and Big Picture Perspective

The best project managers interpret events from a big picture (mission) perspective with an eye toward future consequences of immediate decisions. As one Navy project manager said:

We were heading to a point where, although it was years away from happening, things would start to diverge. But action needed to be taken right then and there, so that…we would have enough canisters to go around and support the missile base. That was the driving factor in what I was doing.

Another Army project manager stated that as a project manager, you must maintain a: big picture focus—keep the whole effort, along with the people involved, in focus, not letting the day to day details and tasks become more important than the overarching goal.

Systematic and Innovative Thinkers

Outstanding project managers are both systematic and innovative thinkers. They understand the complex and rapidly changing environment in which they must work. Further, they are able to see through this complexity to provide a structure for sound decision-making as well as a point of departure for more innovative solution options. In the words of Admiral Carlisle Trost, a former Chief of Naval Operations:

Figuring out what is going on in a complex world is the heart of leadership. Otherwise leaders are defeated by events they do not understand.

Today's project managers are expected to “think outside the box” to provide a better system or better value for money. As one Army project manager adamantly stated:

If something is not prohibited by law or regulation or can be waivered, and it will benefit your project, then do it! Push the system until it cries out in pain to get what is needed to make your project successful!

Find and Empower the Best People

The best project managers are masters of working with and through others. They focus their efforts on finding the best people for their project teams and then let them handle the myriad of decisions and details that epitomize even the most basic projects. As one project manager noted:

The first thing you do is get the right people. My contractors have made an observation. They told me I don't have many people here but the ones I've got are terrific. And, that's exactly the way they were picked.

Another Army project manager described how he assessed and then leveraged the strengths of his staff:

I believe that it is imperative for the PM to know the unique capabilities of each staff member, and then ensure that each staff member is placed in the position that will make the best use of those capabilities. The PM must then understand what it takes to motivate these individuals to the point that each achieves more than he or she thought possible.

Selective Involvement in Project Issues

Effective project managers do not try to do everything themselves. They typically focus on a few strategically important areas, leaving the mass of administrative and technical matters to subordinates. This is most clearly illustrated in the DSMC research interviews, which focused on critical incidents selected by the project managers. Of the 285 critical incidents, over half were concentrated in just four functional areas: contracting (62), personnel management (42), test and evaluation (31), and acquisition strategy (i.e., project planning) (26).

As one Army project manager put it:

You must realize, you can't do everything yourself. People are your most precious asset!

This Air Force colonel clearly reveals his willingness to delegate:

My role in the restructuring was to task the organization, to work with the user and with the contractor to come up with this program. I never got involved with the details. That is not my job.

Focus on External Stakeholders

While outstanding project managers craft effective project teams, they also spend considerable time networking with external customers and support organizations. The number of external stakeholders who can potentially impact a project is huge. Thus, project managers must determine who the key players are and what is important to them. One Army project manager commented:

The project manager is always operating outside of his controlled environment. In fact, very seldom is a project manager huddled around with all the people just from his project office.

Another Army project mangers stated:

Without cooperation from the large number of people and organizations who make up the acquisition process no project will go forward.

Thrive on Relationships and Influence

Since project managers have no formal power over these external stakeholders, they must rely on their ability to cultivate relationships and use influence strategies to achieve their objectives. This Navy project manager traveled overseas not only to solve a fielding problem, but also more importantly to develop an ongoing relationship with his customers in the fleet:

I made a trip to Scotland as a damage control effort, if you will, to talk to the squadron people and that kind of thing. To talk to them after having spent a lot of time and being kind of a nuisance to everybody…with these modifications which now didn't work. My credibility was zero. I tried to restore our credibility. We really did want to help them out. I think they were surprised to see a four-striped captain come all the way from Washington DC to talk about their problems.

This U.K. project manager found himself in a very difficult situation on a joint project with the U.S. Navy and used his political savvy to get out of it.

I would tread on people's toes because the U.S. project manager didn't want me speaking directly to his folks who are in the Pentagon, although I couldn't work without that. So I got around that by holding the meetings in the British Embassy and inviting him to come to our “foreign territory.” Whatever happened, I would just look for a way around it. It was just—it just became a game actually, of trying to unravel all the pressure groups.

To reverse a potentially devastating budget cut, this Army project manager knew who to involve, at what point and why:

I finally recognized that I needed heavy hitters with more influence and authority than I had, so I set up a meeting with the program executive office, the head of procurement, my staff, an attorney advisor, and the Army's contract policy expert. In other words, I had to go in there and literally stack the deck in terms of influence and independent representatives who would vouch for what I had said.

Proactively Gather Information and Insist on Results

The best project managers constantly probe for information and push for results. This project manager used his own questioning technique to insure that information he received was accurate.

At this meeting, I asked the contractor what they knew about the subcontractor status. You know, where precisely are they? What are their plans to do this? With each answer, I would just ask one question, I would just ask one question deeper than that. When they started to stutter, I knew they were in trouble because I shouldn't be able to go that one level deeper and ask a question they can't answer.

Finally, successful project managers must produce results. As this project manager concluded:

Everything you do [as a project manager] has got to be focused on results, results, results.

Relative Importance of the Competencies

The initial DSMC research study (Cullen & Gadeken, 1990) was the only one with a large enough interview sample to allow for subgroup comparisons. With the interest in top performers, the research team asked the sponsoring military organizations to identify the very best project managers from those who had been interviewed. An assessment of each project manager by their project team was correlated with the senior rater nominations. This split the group of 52 interviewed project managers approximately in half.

Exhibit 8. Survey Validation of PM Competencies

Survey Validation of PM Competencies

Exhibit 9. Personal Attributes Arrayed by Ease of Development

Personal Attributes Arrayed by Ease of Development

Statistical comparisons were then done on the frequency data for each competency (i.e., number of times each competency appeared in the interview transcript). The results of this analysis were that competencies Strong Commitment to a Clear Mission and Thrive on Relationships and Influence were demonstrated, with statistical validity, more often by the top performing project managers than by their contemporaries. So these competencies were listed in italics in Exhibit 7 to denote their greater importance to effective project leadership.

Validation Surveys

An interesting finding from the DSMC study (Cullen & Gadeken, 1990) emerged from the comparison of importance rankings of specific competencies by project managers with ranking from other acquisition professionals (functional managers from different specialty areas such as contracting, budgeting, engineering, and logistics). This comparison is illustrated in Exhibit 8. It is clear that there are some significant differences in the competency rankings between the two groups (as noted by the arrows between the columns). The acquisition professionals (functional managers) considered technical expertise, attention to detail, and creativity (defined as developing novel technical solutions) as far more important than did project managers.

On the other hand, project managers rated sense of ownership/mission, political awareness, and strategic influence much higher than functional managers did. An underlying issue emerges from the difference in competency requirements for project managers and functional specialists: the transition from functional specialist to project manager may be conceptually quite difficult. A review of the literature (Gadeken, 1986) supports this conclusion, especially for scientists and engineers who currently make up the bulk of defense project managers.

Competency Assessment

Assessing project managers’ ability to perform critical management and leadership skills is a difficult proposition. However, assessment techniques have emerged in recent years that are quite useful. Tailored survey assessment instruments can be created and given to the project manager's supervisor, peers, and subordinates asking for their assessment of both past performance and future potential in selected competency areas. This “3600 feedback” (from above, at the same level, and below in the organization) has rapidly gained momentum in both U.S. public- and private-sector organizations. Several commercially developed multi-rater instruments are now available. Most feature computer scoring, automated feedback (report) generation, and even tailoring of items to fit the individuals and organization using the instruments.

Another useful method is the critical incident interview process used in DSMC's competency research. Here, the project manager is asked to recount several significant prior job situations of their own choosing. In each situation, the interviewer listens and probes for detail seeking to identify which competencies the individual has used (and not used) in the past. Such discussions often cut through generic statements of capability and accomplishment to what project manager actually did in real-life situations.

Experiential exercises and behavioral simulations are ideally suited to assess leadership and management competencies. These exercises vary from short role-playing scenarios requiring minimal preparation to more elaborate behavioral simulations with several participants, each provided with a detailed in-basket of background information. Project managers can be put into these realistic situations and asked to respond, not by stating what they would do in the situations, but by actually doing it. Participants then step aside and become students of their own behavior through follow-up discussions including feedback from trainers and other participants. Assessment instruments and behavioral checklists can also be used to augment the personal feedback provided.

Clearly, no project manager career development model is complete without a credible competency assessment process.

Competency Development

Even with effective assessment and selection processes, further improvement of critical project manager skills is desirable for all project managers, even the most competent. Efforts to achieve this improvement should be directed both on the job and in the series of professional training opportunities that may be available or sponsored by the organization. Several self-development and training methodologies exist which can be adapted for this purpose. These include the competency assessment instrument and critical incident interview described above.

Case studies have also proven effective in addressing project manager competencies, when imbedded in established training programs. Case studies based on past projects can bring the real world dimension to the classroom and provide additional focus on project manager unique skill requirements. Several such real work cases have been developed by DSMC and are now used in the curriculum.

Experiential exercises can add the behavioral dimension to the classroom environment. Here, understanding is only the first step in mastering the complex set of project manager competencies. In his book, The Competent Manager, noted management researcher Dr. Richard Boyatzis states (Boyatzis, 1982):

Too often training programs attempt to teach the fundamentals using lectures, readings, case discussions, films, and dynamic speakers to transfer knowledge to course participants. Unfortunately, it is usually not the lack of knowledge, but the inability to use knowledge that limits effective managerial behavior.

To focus on this application of knowledge, DSMC uses several experiential exercises (Gadeken, 1989, 1994) in its project management courses. They range from short team-building exercises to the elaborate Advanced Unmanned Ground Vehicle (AUGV), which features development of a small remotely controlled model vehicle with programmable software. This exercise covers the entire project life cycle with student work groups acting as project teams.

Project Manager Selection

Selection of U.S. defense project managers is currently conducted by special panels in the military services. Although future potential is considered, most of the evaluation is of necessity based on the candidates’ performance in their prior jobs. Project manager candidates are given in-depth training (three courses totaling 20 weeks as a minimum) covering project management functional disciplines. The assumption here is that these project managers have already acquired the necessary leadership and management competencies through their prior work and supervisory experience. This assumption appears to be flawed based on the conclusion made earlier in this paper that there are several unique project manager competencies not normally developed by more junior project management professionals.

Exhibit 10. The Performance Multiplier Effect of Personal Competencies

The Performance Multiplier Effect of Personal Competencies

An alternate selection approach might be to use the current selection process based on knowledge and experience but then train the project manager candidates in the critical leadership and management competencies. While this approach appears attractive, it ignores basic limitations of the training process (see Exhibit 9). Specialized knowledge can easily be imparted in a training environment even under time constraints (a few days). However, leadership and management competencies are by their nature complex and are generally developed only with time and experience perhaps over an entire career.

Thus, the preferred alternative for project manager selection is to assess which candidates have or can more readily develop the critical leadership and management competencies identified in this research. Training can then be provided or tailored in project management functional disciplines (knowledge areas) to augment the candidates’ prior knowledge and experience base. This training is much more likely to succeed than a training program to develop critical leadership and management competencies in candidates lacking such skills.

A project manager selection process focused on the critical leadership competencies should have a multiplier effect on project results over time as illustrated in Exhibit 10. Although candidates possessing the critical personal competencies (but lacking experience) may start off as less productive, they will rapidly overtake their less competent but more experienced counterparts in the organization.


As this research has shown, defense project managers require a unique set of competencies focused extensively on managerial and leadership skills. This research could be of considerable value for those organizations, both public and private sector, that wish to move beyond basic certification of project managers to create a talent pool of top performing project management professionals. These research results could aid in setting up the criteria for both selection and professional development of this more highly skilled workforce.

The role of the project manager has and will continue to be the corner stone of effective project-based organizations. From an organizational perspective, considerable planning and attention must be applied now to ensure that future project managers will have the prerequisite skills. This includes carefully structuring processes for selection, assessment and development of project managers with the specialized management and leadership skills required to succeed in the complex global environment that awaits them.

Armstrong, Scott C. (1999). A reassessment of army program manager competencies. Monterey, CA: Nava! Post Graduate School (Masters Thesis).

Best, Gregory D., & Kobylarz, Korina L. (1991). Establishing a department of defense program management body of knowledge. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH: Air Force Institute of Technology (Masters Thesis).

Boyatzis, Richard E. (1982). The competent manager: A model for effective performance. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Cullen, Bernard J., & Gadeken, Owen C. (1990). A competency model of program managers in the DoD acquisition process. Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Systems Management College.

Gadeken, Owen C. (1991). Competencies of project managers in the MOD procurement executive. Shrivenham, England: Royal Military College of Science (Technical Report).

Gadeken, Owen C. (1994). Developing project leadership skills using behavioral simulations. Proceedings of the 1994 Project Management Institute (PMI) National Conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Gadeken, Owen C. (1989). DSMC simulations (games that teach engineers and scientists how to manage). Program Manager (May–June): 29–39.

Gadeken, Owen C. (1986). Why engineers and scientists often fail as managers (and what to do about it). Program Manager (January–February): 37–45.

Gilbert, Thomas F., & Marilyn, B. (1988). The science of winning. Training (August): 33–40.

Klemp, George O. (1982). Job competency assessment: Defining attributes of the top performer. Pig and the Python and Other Tales. American Society for Training and Development, Research Series No. 8.

Kotter, John P., & Lawrence, Paul R. (1974). Mayors in action: five approaches to urban governance. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

McVeigh, Bryan J. (1994). Army program managers: A competency perspective. Monterey, CA: Naval Post Graduate School (Masters Thesis).

Tolstoy, Leo. ed. (1993) War and peace. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Servant Leadership and Project Success member content locked

    By Nauman, Shazia | Musawir, Ata Ul | Malik, Sania Zahra | Munir, Hina Employing self-determination and social identification theories, we examined how servant leadership, which focuses on employees’ needs, influences project success.

  • Project Management Journal

    How Servant Leadership Drives Project Team Performance Through Collaborative Culture and Knowledge Sharing member content locked

    By Nauman, Shazia | Bhatti, Sabeen Hussain | Imam, Hassan | Khan, Mohammad Saud This research compared how two distinct mediating mechanisms influence the servant leadership–project team performance relationship.

  • Project Management Journal

    The Effect of Political Skill on Relationship Quality in Construction Projects member content locked

    By Wang, Dedong | Liu, Yang This study aims to investigate the relationship among political skill, cooperative conflict management styles, and relationship quality.

  • Project Management Journal

    How Power Influences Behavior in Projects member content locked

    By Wynn, Conor | Smith, Liam | Killen, Catherine Taking a case-study approach, we traced the thoughts of project managers subject to power, particularly those who resisted.