Stop managing and start leading--the socially intelligent leader

Abstract

‘Successful projects’ is a much-argued term. Too many definitions and key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to measure the different levels of project success. This paper is not intended to add more definitions or argue new KPIs. This paper is to explain the human factor of projects and its importance for project success, regardless of what or how the success is defined.

According to a growing body of studies and research in the scholar literature, the business managers (including project managers) should develop new skills, particularly social and emotional intelligence skills, to deal with people and their evolving mindsets and changing attitudes.

In order to sustain project success and consequently business growth, project managers should lead more than manage; should understand, influence, coach, trust, and inspire the people around them more than just craft schedules, control budget, manage scope, and monitor progress.

Introduction

In the past, leaders were valued for having strong personal qualities. Robert Hawley, back in 1996, suggested that future leaders “will be those who can demonstrate a greater empathy and concern for people issues and those who do not rely on position or rank for their status” (Hawley, 1996, p. 217). More and more studies are indicating that leadership requires new skills, particularly those skills associated with emotional and social intelligence (see References list).

Project managers, as active agents of change, are expected to complete their projects successfully. To do this, they need to fully understand the customers who requested the change; actively motivate and empower the team who are working on the change; and smartly influence the stakeholders to gear the project toward success. All of this requires clever acumen and sharp dexterity in dealing with different groups of people who make up the customers, the team, and the wider list of stakeholders.

Organisations, on the other hand, are continually looking for growth, and sometimes diversification opportunities to cope with the challenges and added complexity across different business domains. Innovation and shorter time-to-market necessitate the continuous development of new products, services and value propositions to keep the organisations afloat. As Goyal and Akhilesh (2007) put it, “today's organizations need a fundamentally different mindset not only to prosper but to survive.” (Goyal & Akhilesh, 2007, p. 207) And as ‘projects’ are a necessary means for introducing ‘new things,’ organisations should adopt, among other things, a ‘project culture’ in their business processes even if this is not explicitly recognised.

Putting these three pieces of the puzzle together, it is clear that project success, and consequently organisations’ growth, depend heavily on the project managers’ leadership and people skills. Such interpersonal skills are closely associated with the wide spectrum of emotional and social intelligence.

Projects

If you pose the question: Why do we run projects? You would get answers, such as: to respond to someone's request, to influence someone, to make money for our shareholders, or maybe to make someone happy. Great! ‘People’ are the reason why projects are run. Now ask the question: What do projects do? And you would get answers, such as: make a change to something used by someone or deliver a new product or a service that makes someone's life easier. Again, people are involved. The next question would be: How are projects done? The basic response would be plan, build, and deliver the agreed on outcome. Needless to say, you certainly need people to plan, build, and deliver that outcome.

In other words, projects rely on people from their inception to completion. Therefore, regardless of the importance of the formal processes and the tools to identify, prioritise, plan, and deliver projects, the human factor is paramount in all stages of projects. While the formal processes, guidelines, and tools are necessary for running successful projects, they are not sufficient. The human factor is the important ingredient that will almost always make or break the projects.

Human Capital

The human resource literature defines ‘human capital’ as the sum total of employee knowledge, skills, and abilities available to the organisation. The human capital, “if properly nurtured and deployed, can serve as the basis for a sustainable competitive advantage” (Wickham & O’Donohue, 2012, p.13). Goyal and Akhilesh (2007) put this view in a clear and direct manner when they claimed that “highly motivated and successful teams are the benchmark of successful organizations” (Goyal & Akhilesh, 2007, p.207). In other words, the human capital is crucial for the success of organisations.

Wickham and O’Donohue (2012) outlined Albrecht's (2002) concept of ‘Organisational Intelligence’ as the capacity of an organisation to exploit the ‘brain power’ of its employees and focus it to achieve its strategic goals (Wickham & O’Donohue, 2012). According to Albrecht (2002), organisational intelligence consists of four aspects (Wickham & O’Donohue, 2012):

  1.     The capacity of employees to sense and monitor specific aspects of their environment
  2. The ability of employees to relate the information they are sensing to their work practices
  3. The ability of employees to detect significant deviations from these work practices
  4. The willingness of employees to initiate corrective actions to adjust discrepancies

These aspects fit nicely in project work and the expected behaviour of project teams. The project team members are expected to have the capability to monitor the surrounding environment and relevant stakeholders, comprehend the changing environment and detect deviations, and have the initiative and enthusiasm to make decisions to ‘fix things up.’ That is, project team members are not expected to be doers only; they are expected to be ready, willing, and able to act as thinkers and deciders as well.

In a study conducted by Emmerling and Boyatzis (2012) they concluded that emotional and social intelligence competencies represent a “reliable and valid approach to assessing and developing individuals in diverse cultures” (Emmerling & Boyatzis, 2012, p. 4). Goyal and Akhilesh (2007) presented a similar argument and claimed that the individual social skills are crucial for effective team performance.

Emotional and Social Intelligence

Thomas Sy and Stephane Cote (2004) argue that the annihilation of the Roman army in the battle of Cannae in the year 216 BC by Hannibal's army, despite the fact that the Roman army outnumbered their enemy's army, was because Roman leaders failed to emotionally prepare their troops for victory, while “Hannibal instilled teamwork among his leaders, coordinated actions between subunits, managed emotions among his troops by eliminating fears and doubt, and inspired his troops to engage the enemy with wholehearted bravery.” (Sy & Cote, 2004, p. 438)

Traversing to 2003 AD, we notice a similar ‘management of emotions’ in the story of Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hughes of the American Army in Iraq. Hughes's group of soldiers set out for a local mosque in a small town to contact the town's chief cleric. They wanted to distribute relief supplies and they were hoping that the local cleric would help them in this. Fearing that the soldiers were coming to arrest their spiritual leader, a mob of local residents gathered, waving their fists in the air and shouting. Hughes quickly picked up a loudspeaker and told his soldiers to kneel on one knee, point the rifles down, and smile. This action largely defused the mob's anger and allowed the soldiers to walk away without any trouble (Goleman, 2006).

The common element between Hannibal and Christopher Hughes is their Social Cognition and Influence, two ingredients of Social Intelligence as defined by Daniel Goleman (2006). Social Cognition is the skill of knowing how the social world works, and Influence is the ability to shape the outcome of social interactions (Goleman, 2006). Hannibal's social cognition allowed him to comprehend how the Romans fight as well as understand his army's capability and strength; and his influence enabled him to get his army to trust him although they know that the Romans considerably outnumbered them. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hughes was able to quickly assess and appreciate the situation he and his group of soldiers were in and to swiftly grasp the reasons why the locals were angry and acting in the way they did. He was able to get his soldiers to trust him when asking them to kneel, point their rifles down, and smile while they were facing a clearly hostile group.

In addition to Social Cognition and Influence, Goleman (2006) identified six additional ingredients of social intelligence. Attunement, the ability to listen with full receptivity; Primal Empathy and Empathic Accuracy, the abilities to feel with others, sense their non-verbal signals and accurately understand their thoughts, feelings, and intentions; Synchrony and Concern, the abilities to interact with others smoothly at the non-verbal level and to care about and act on others’ needs; and Self-presentation, the ability to present themselves effectively and accurately (Goleman, 2006).

On the other hand, Karl Albrecht (2006) described social intelligence in five dimensions. Situational Awareness, the ability to read the situation and to interpret the behaviours of people in those situations (what Hannibal and Colonel Hughes did); Presence, the range of verbal and nonverbal behaviours that define you in the minds of others; Authenticity, the behaviours that cause others to judge you as honest, open, and real; Clarity, the ability to explain your ideas and articulate your views; and Empathy, the ability to connect with others. (Albrecht, 2006)

Let it be Social Cognition and Influence, according to Goleman (2006) or social Awareness, according to Albrecht (2006); both leaders, Hannibal and Colonel Hughes, were able to use their Social Intelligence skills to act and strike success in a difficult situation.

Social Intelligence or Emotional Intelligence?

Edward Thorndike first coined the term social intelligence in 1920. Thorndike, in his 1920 article in Harper Monthly Magazine “noted that such interpersonal effectiveness was of vital importance for success in many fields, particularly leadership. ‘The best mechanic in a factory,’ he wrote, ‘may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.’” (Goleman, 2006, p. 83)

By the late 1950s, the importance of social intelligence was dismissed because it was seen as general intelligence applied to social situations. One pioneer of this dismissal was David Wechsler who developed one of the widely used measures of IQ (Goleman, 2006).

However, social intelligence has become now ripe for rethinking as neuroscience begins to make more discoveries in mapping the areas in the brain that regulate interpersonal dynamics. Goleman (2006) argues that a cohesive theory of social intelligence has eluded psychology, mainly because psychology as a profession is a scientific subculture. One example to justify his argument, Goleman (2006) pointed out that when “ordinary people were asked to list what makes a person intelligent, social competence emerged as a prominent natural category. But when psychologists who were considered experts on intelligence were asked to come up with a similar list, their emphasis was on cognitive abilities like verbal and problem-solving skills. Wechsler's dismissive view of social intelligence seems to live on in the implicit assumptions of his field.” (Goleman, 2006, p. 333)

The terms emotional intelligence and social intelligence in the scholarly literature are used interchangeably. Crowne (2009) argues that emotional intelligence is a subset of social intelligence, whereas Boyatzis (2006) defines emotional intelligence as the “ability to recognize, understand, and use emotional information about oneself that leads to or causes effective or superior performance,” and social intelligence as the “ability to recognize, understand, and use emotional information about others that leads to or causes effective or superior performance” (Boyatzis, 2006, p. 757). The intention of this paper is not to argue the similarities or differences between emotional and social intelligence or skills, but to emphasise the importance of such skills in business and project success, or as Boyatzis (2009) just put it: the abilities that lead to or cause “effective or superior performance” (Boyatzis, 2006, p. 757). Therefore, the terms social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and social skills are used in this paper interchangeably.

Social Skills and Project Success

Rebecca Turner and Beverley Lloyd-Walker (2008) highlighted the importance of people for project success and how project managers have to develop people skills. Turner and Lloyd-Walker (2008) conducted a study on the effect of training on emotional intelligence competencies and the impact on employee satisfaction and project success. The findings of the study indicated “that developing emotional intelligence capabilities will contribute to increased project management success” (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008, p. 512). Turner and Lloyd-Walker (2008) stated that emotionally intelligent leadership styles support communication, encourage flexibility, and lead to innovative approaches to solving problems. They referred to various research studies and literature reviews that emphasised the human dimension in project success; how project managers’ human skills have the greatest influence on project management practices; and how soft skills training is important for successful project management. They quoted Lechler (1998) who said “when it comes to projects, it's the people that count” (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008, p. 513).

Turner and Lloyd-Walker (2008) continue their argument by stating that the nature of project management is that it brings people together to apply their knowledge and skills to complete the project successfully within its constraints. Therefore, it is imperative that the project team members work together well (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008). Druskat and Wolff (2001) claim that “the most effective teams are emotionally intelligent ones” (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008, p. 514). Druksat and Wolff (2001) point out that having some group members who are emotionally intelligent will not result in an emotionally intelligent team. However, it is important to have team norms that build the team's emotional intelligence to perform better and respond constructively in uncomfortable situations (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008)

Management versus Leadership for Project Success

The business literature is overflowing with books, articles, forums, blogs, and discussions on management and leadership attributes; their similarities and differences; as well as comparisons and assessments. Increasingly, the literature is directing the discussions and justifications towards the importance of leadership skills, particularly when a change is needed or a goal is sought. In other words, while management attributes are undoubtedly critical to maintain the operations of an organisation, leadership attributes are becoming critical to progress and grow the organisations. Therefore, leadership attributes are critical for project managers because they are the drivers of the projects that will affect the change or achieve the goals necessary for the organisation to grow. Leadership, according to Turner and Lloyd-Walker (2008) “includes motivating, influencing, and bringing about change” (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008, 515).

A research study conducted by Wood and Vilkinas (2005) identified the three most common characteristics of leadership as achievement orientation, taking a humanistic approach, and positivism. Such characteristics are indeed crucial for project success. Project success depends on the commonly accepted components of project management, such planning, scheduling, and control. However, different studies concluded that project success is even more dependent on the leadership interpersonal aspects of motivating, influencing, and bringing about change. Leadership generates more success because leaders have followers, people who will follow them because they want to, rather than subordinates who perform the work because they have to. Thus, leadership attributes can contribute to, or hinder, project success (Binder, 2007; Christenson, 2007; Christenson & Walker, 2004; Gushgar et al., 1997; Odusami, 2002).

Leaders successfully attract and nurture talent and inspire followers and coach them (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008). No doubt, leaders gain the trust of their followers, which is an important ingredient for project success, compared to managers who depend on the obedience of their subordinates to do the job. Keeping in mind the ‘turbulent’ nature of projects, where they consistently change as they progress, trusting followers are more likely to tolerate the impact of the project turbulence on tasks and duration than obedient subordinates. It is just human nature.

Talking about human nature, we can't but consider social and emotional intelligence as the capacity to understand, value, and wisely manage emotions in relationship to oneself and others. Effective leadership traits are interlinked with social and emotional intelligence traits. Going over leadership literature and social and emotional intelligence literature you will find many common terms such as listening, motivating, conflict resolution, empathy, inspiring, influencing, and more. Turner and Muller (2005) examined leadership and project management over many years and “found that there were specific instances where choice of an appropriate leadership style and the EI (emotional intelligence) of the leader delivered better results” (Turner & Lloyd-Walker, 2008, p. 517)

Emotion Regulation

Adam Grant, Associate Professor of Management at The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA in a forthcoming study in the Academy of Management Journal (Grant, 2013) is explaining emotion regulation and hypothesising that emotion regulation knowledge enables employees to speak up more frequently and in ways that will be perceived positively by their managers. Grant (2013) argues that employee voice—their ability to proactively speak up—is not merely a means of obtaining creative ideas and increasing the likelihood of innovation; employees’ voices are crucial for organisations’ growth and survival as well. (Grant, 2013)

Employee Voice

Grant (2013) states that the “growing pace and complexity of work presents new challenges for leaders and managers to anticipate, identify, and respond to all of the threats and opportunities that loom on the horizon... As a result, leaders and managers need employees to express voice—a proactive behaviour that involves speaking up with suggestions for improvement” (Grant, 2013, p. 3). Grant (2013) brings on evidence from scholars that employee voice enables organisations to learn from their mistakes, facilitate the prevention and correction of costly errors, enhance the quality of decisions and solutions, and discern threats and opportunities. Moreover, Grant (2013) points out that the lack of employees’ voice has been implicated in organisation disasters, such as the explosion of space shuttle Challenger and some airline crashes.

Grant (2013) acknowledges that the voice of employees is a risky endeavour as it challenges the status quo. Grant (2013) states that numerous studies have shown that employees perceive managers as discouraging or punishing voice; however, Grant (2013) believes that the cause of the managers’ discouraging reaction is due to the fact that when employees experience frustration or anger, these negative emotions leak into suggestions they express, causing these suggestions to look like complaints or criticism rather than constructive recommendations for improvement.

Therefore, Grant (2013) concludes, “the same negative emotions that spur employees to speak up may undermine their ability to do so constructively” (Grant, 2013, p. 5). Grant (2013) puts this forward as a paradox: negative emotions may increase the frequency of voice but decrease its effectiveness. As a solution for this paradox, Grant (2013) believes that “to speak up, and do so effectively, employees need emotion regulation knowledge” (Grant, 2013, p. 5). Grant (2013) argues that employees with strong emotion regulation knowledge can marshal sufficient levels of frustration and anger to speak up in the face of fear, at the same time temper these emotions to express their suggestions constructively (Grant, 2013).

Socially Intelligent Leaders

Many studies and researches published in the leadership literature highlight the relationship between emotional and social intelligence and effective leadership. Most of these studies conclude that managing and controlling emotions and social skills are positively associated with effective leadership.

Brotheridge and Lee (2008) examined the literature to understand how emotions are implicated in the process of managing. They concluded that emotions and emotional skills are essential for everyday managerial work. The notion that managers have to be rational to succeed in their jobs has been replaced with the notion that managers are expected to effectively manage their own emotions and those of their employees in order to nourish positive relationships and consequently deliver useful results. (Brotheridge & Lee, 2008)

Rosete and Ciarrochi (2005) published a study that investigated the relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. The study also included investigation into the personality and cognitive intelligence of these leaders. The study concluded that higher emotional intelligence was associated with higher leadership effectiveness. Moreover, emotional intelligence explained variance not explained by either personality or cognitive intelligence measures (Rosete & Ciarrochi, 2005).

Moreover, Albrecht (2006) described the extremes of social intelligence as either toxic behaviours that cause other people to feel devalued, inadequate, intimidated, angry, frustrated or guilty; or nourishing behaviours that cause others to feel valued, capable, loved, respected, and appreciated. Albrecht (2006) added that people with high social intelligence attract others to them, whereas those with low social intelligence repel others. Albrecht (2006) explains that developing social intelligence among managers and professionals will promote collaboration, reduce conflict, and replace bigotry and polarisation with understanding. (Albrecht, 2006)

Kerr et al. (2006) investigated the relationship between emotional intelligence levels and a rating of leadership effectiveness. They concluded that an individual's emotional intelligence “may indeed be a key determinant of effective leadership. Employee perceptions of supervisor effectiveness are strongly related to the EI of the supervisor.” (Kerr et al., 2006, p. 275) Kerr et al. (2006) suggested that the results support the inclusion of emotional intelligence levels in the selection process as well as the training and development process for managerial positions.

Social Skills Can and should be Developed

Groves et al. (2008) provided more evidence on the possibility of developing emotional intelligence skills. In an empirical study, Groves et al. (2008) found that emotional intelligence can be deliberately developed. After undergoing an intensive 11-week emotional intelligence training programme, the research group demonstrated statistically significant overall emotional intelligence gains as well as gains across each emotional intelligence dimension (Groves et al, 2008).

Stein et al. (2009) supported “the notion that high emotional intelligence skills are present in top executives and are related to performance.” (Stein et al., 2009, p. 98) Their study concluded that top executives scored significantly higher than the general population in total emotional intelligence skill levels. Moreover, the emotional intelligence scores of empathy, self-regard, reality testing and problem solving were “significantly related to profitability. Based on these results, leadership programs that encourage the development of EI skills may be useful in helping leaders to realize their potential.” (Stein et al., 2009, p. 98)

Riggio and Reichard (2008) conducted a study that describes a framework for conceptualising the roles of emotional and social skills in effective leadership. The framework consists of the skills of emotional and social expression, recognition, and regulation, which intersects neatly with Grant's (2013) concept of emotion regulation described earlier. The association of the framework skills with effective leadership are summarised in Exhibit 1. Riggio and Reichard (2008) concluded that “emotional and social skills are both related to leader effectiveness and are able to be improved through training interventions.” (Riggio & Reichard, 2008, p. 181) Therefore, emotional and social skills should be an important component of a leadership development program to develop effective leaders. (Riggio & Reichard, 2008)

Exhibit 1 – The emotional and social skills framework (as defined by Riggio & Reichard, 2008, p. 172)

The emotional and social skills framework (as defined by Riggio & Reichard, 2008, p. 172)

Traits of Effective and Socially Intelligent Leaders

According to the examined literature, effective leaders exhibit emotional and social intelligence skills in addition to other behaviours. Effective leaders generally exercise most of the following traits:

  • Listen with full receptivity. Effective leaders are usually active listeners who attune to people at the verbal and nonverbal levels

  • Practice genuine empathy. Effective leaders are considerate about their team and co-workers; understand accurately their feelings, thoughts, and intentions.

  • Exhibit authenticity. Effective leaders are what others aspire to. Authentic leaders attract people who rush in to engage and contribute.

  • Coach rather than direct. When talking to co-workers, effective leaders coach people rather than direct actions or request work to be done.

  • Motivate, thrill, and inspire. Effective leaders continually motivate co-workers and inspire their team as well as everyone else in the organisation.

  • Encourage innovation. Effective leaders encourage innovative ideas, nourish entrepreneurial attitude, and cheer novel initiatives.

  • Foster breakthrough. Effective leaders monitor risk and accelerate experimentation to achieve breakthroughs.

  • Trust their team. A wise leader trusts his team and treats them like adults. He relies on interpersonal relationships and communication instead of bureaucratic procedures.

  • Prepare next generation leaders. Effective leaders spend time preparing the next generation of leaders more than spending time for personal success.

  • Show social cognition. Socially intelligent leaders know how the social world around them works.

  • Know how to shape the outcome. Effective leaders are usually able to influence the course of action and persuade the hesitant stakeholders with their point of view.

  • Challenge the status quo. Effective leaders understand that the world around them changes consistently, and therefore, they always look for different and better ways to do things.

  • Demonstrate entrepreneurial mindset. Their consistent challenge of the status quo enables effective leaders to appear as entrepreneurs looking for innovative ways to grow the business.

  • Practice and demand accountability. Socially intelligent leaders are not afraid to declare accountability for the results and work they do. They demand the same thing from their co-workers.

Conclusion

We would like to think that our environment is standardised, organised, predictable, well structured, logical and detailed enough. This is the manager's dream. The reality is that our environment is fuzzy, disorganised, unpredictable, intuitive, emotional, and quiet subjective, and that is the leader's reality. We need special competencies to navigate the environment, make sense out of it, and make a difference. In project management terms, we need the social skills to understand the sponsor and the requestors in order to lead the doers to produce something useful for the users. We need to understand people to deal with people.

Stop managing your project team and start leading your people. Stop treating your team members as only doers and start treating them as thinkers and decision makers as well. Stop asking your team to do the thing right and start asking them to do the right thing.

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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.

© 2013, Ibrahim Dani
Originally published as part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey

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