Matching the project manager's leadership style to project type

J. Rodney Turner
ESC Lille

Ralf Müller
Umeå University

Over the past 60 years, since project management was first adopted in its current form, (Morris, 1997), people have tried to improve the performance of their projects. In addition, there has also been a change in the understanding of what constitutes project success (Jugdev & Müller, 2005). In the 1980s, the focus on project success was very much on the planning and control tools adopted, and on relationships between client and project team (Morris, 1988; Pinto & Slevin, 1988). More recently, the focus has been on risk management, and the governance support provided by the parent organization, (Cooke-Davies, 2001). Historically, research in project improvement has emphasized efficiency measures instead of the behavioural or interpersonal factors, hard skills rather than soft skills (Munns & Bjeirmi, 1996). While achievements of performance measures— such as time, budget, and functionality—dominated the early understanding of success, it gradually moved towards softer factors, such as customer satisfaction in the 1980s, and broader concepts of stakeholder satisfaction at the end of the last century. Accordingly, the understanding of project management broadened from project management being merely a task of planning, organizing, and controlling, to a situation where project management is about managing people to deliver results instead of managing work (Turner, 1999). This is in line with general management literature, which stresses the importance of leadership for the achievement of an organization’s results. However, the literature on project success has largely ignored the project manager, and his or her competence or leadership style as a success factor in the temporary organization that is a project (Turner & Müller, 2005).

A recent research study suggested that different project management approaches are appropriate for different types of project (Crawford, Hobbs, & Turner, 2005). If this is correct, it would suggest that different project management styles, and thus different competency profiles and leaderships styles, would be appropriate for different types of projects (Turner & Müller, 2005). This would be consistent with findings in the general management literature, which has shown that different leadership styles lead to better results in different organizational contexts (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2003; Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002). We are therefore undertaking a research project, sponsored by the Project Management Institute (PMI), with the aim of showing that:

  • The project manager’s leadership style influences project success.
  • Different leadership styles are appropriate for different types of projects.

In this paper, we describe the initial results of this research. We have conducted a literature research of both the general management literature and the project management literature to find what they say about the relationship between leadership style and performance of organizations and projects. We then conducted interviews with fourteen people from three continents and a variety of industries to identify current practice. It is the results of those interviews that we describe in this paper. We will subsequently conduct a web-based questionnaire to obtain wider results, and confirm the results of the web-based questionnaire back in the companies interviewed. The results of this study should allow practitioners to improve the fit of the project manager’s leadership style to the needs of the specific project type to improve the project’s outcomes.

In the first section, we describe the results of the literature search. We describe the general management literature on leadership and what the project management literature has said about matching the project manager’s leadership style to the type of project. We then describe our research methodology and research model, before presenting the results of our interviews. We present our conclusions and recommendations.

Literature Review

The General Management Literature on Leadership

The general management literature identifies six schools of leadership (Figure 1). Also shown in Figure 1 are three historical schools going back 2500 years. For a detailed description of the six schools, see Turner and Müller (2005). Here we only capture key points for the later discussion.

Six modern and three historical schools of leadership

Figure 1. Six modern and three historical schools of leadership

Four early schools

The trait school suggests that leaders exhibit certain traits that they are born with. The behavioural school assumes that effective leaders display certain behaviours or styles, which can be developed. Most theories from this school characterize leaders by how much they exhibit styles based on one or more of the following parameters:

  1. Concern for people or relationships
  2. Concern for production or process
  3. Use of authority
  4. Involvement of the team in decision-making (formulating decisions)
  5. Involvement of the team in decision-taking (choosing options)
  6. Flexibility versus the application of rules

We return to these later. Most authors from the behavioural school assume that different behaviours or styles are appropriate in different circumstances; but that was formalized by the contingency school. The visionary school identifies two types of leaders: those who focus on relationships and communicate their values, and those who focus on process. These are called transformational and transactional leaders, respectively (Bass, 1990). Confucius and Aristotle had similar views on leadership. Both said that good leaders need to exhibit concern for relationships, to communicate their values, and to follow due process (Figure 1). Confucius also said that good leaders need to exhibit Goldilocks behaviour, to be balanced and concerned about achieving moderation.

Competency school

This school says that effective leaders exhibit certain competencies. It encompasses all the previous schools because traits and behaviours are competencies. It further says that certain competency profiles are appropriate in different situations, and that the competency profile of transformational and transactional leaders can be defined. After a substantial review of the literature on leadership competencies, Dulewicz and Higgs (2003) identified fifteen which influence leadership performance (Figure 2). They group the competencies into three types, which they call intellectual (IQ), managerial (MQ), and emotional (EQ). In Figure 2, we have shown how the leadership competencies might apply to Confucius’s four virtues (De). Dulewicz and Higgs also identified three leadership styles, which they called Goal-Oriented, Involving and Engaging (Figure 2). Through a study of 400 managers working on organizational change projects, they showed that those who are considered goal-oriented leaders are best on low-complexity projects, those who are involving leaders are best on medium-complexity projects, and those who are engaging leaders are best on high-complexity projects. Thus, Dulewicz and Higgs answered a qualified “yes” to our two research questions. On organizational change projects:

  • Certain leadership styles lead to better results than others.
  • Different leadership styles are appropriate, depending on the complexity of change.
Fifteen leadership competencies after Dulewicz and Higgs (2003)

Figure 2. Fifteen leadership competencies after Dulewicz and Higgs (2003)

Emotional intelligence school

This school assumes that all managers have a reasonable level of intelligence. It suggests that to do an MBA course requires an IQ of 115. Therefore, what differentiates leaders is not their intelligence, but their emotional response to situations. Goleman et al. (2002) identify nineteen leadership competencies grouped into four dimensions:

Personal competencies

  • Self-awareness (mainly Confucius’s moderation)
  • Self-management (mainly Confucius’s values)

Social competencies

  • Social awareness (mainly Confucius’s values)
  • Relationship management (mainly Confucius’s relationships)

Goleman et al. (2002) identify six management styles, exhibiting different profiles of their competencies: visionary; coaching; affiliative; democratic; pacesetting; and commanding. Through a survey of 2000 managers, they identified situations in which these different styles are appropriate. The first four are best in certain situations, but all four are adequate in most medium to long-term situations. They classify the last two styles as toxic. They say that they work well in turnaround or recovery situations; but, if applied medium- to long-term, they can poison a situation and de-motivate subordinates. Thus, Goleman et al. answer a qualified yes to our two research questions. On turnaround projects and crisis situations:

  • Certain leadership styles lead to better results than others
  • Different leadership styles are appropriate, depending on the complexity of change
  • But those leadership styles are not appropriate on other types of project.

Personality versus leadership style

Goleman et al. (2002) and Dulewicz and Higgs (2003) also address the issue of personality. Goleman et al. say that a person’s emotional intelligence is a measure of their personality, but their success as a leader is not dependent on their personality: It is, instead, dependent on the leadership style they adopt. Although a person is born with a particular personality, they can vary their leadership style by drawing on different emotional competencies, depending on the circumstances. A person can also learn to develop different leadership styles to suit different circumstances; they can achieve this by developing their emotional competencies.

Several personality profiles have been developed to explain performance in teams; for instance, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Briggs-Myers, 1992), the 16PF (personality factor) profile (Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970), and profiles by Belbin (1986) and Margerison and McCann (1990). These usually suggest that a team leader should aim to balance personality types across a team. Some people also (incorrectly) use team behaviour profiles as an indicator of one’s success as a leader. These profiles, however, are not intended for this application. Dulewicz and Higgs, in their research on 400 managers, have shown that there is no correlation between one’s Belbin’s personality profile and one’s performance as a leader and that there is only a weak correlation between one’s 16PF personality factors and one’s leadership performance. Thus, based on these two pieces of work, we have chosen to focus on leadership competencies and not personality profiles.

The Project Management Literature and the Schools of Leadership

There are six schools of leadership discussed in the project management literature.

Trait, style, and contingency schools

Turner (1999), from work he did at Henley Management College, identified seven traits of effective project managers: problem-solving ability; results orientation; energy and initiative; self-confidence; perspective; communication; and negotiating ability. Based on the work of Frame (1987), Turner also identified four leadership styles (Figure 3) and suggested that different styles are appropriate at different stages of the project life-cycle (Figure 4). Different team types and different team members are also appropriate at the different stages of the life cycle.

Thus, Turner (1999) and Frame (1987) have answered a qualified “yes” to our two research questions. Throughout the project life cycle:

  • Certain leadership styles lead to better results than others
  • Different leadership styles are appropriate, depending on the stage of the project life-cycle.
Four styles of project manager (Turner, 1999)

Figure 3. Four styles of project manager (Turner, 1999)

Leadership styles, project team types and the project life-cycle

Figure 4. Leadership styles, project team types and the project life-cycle

Charismatic school

Keegan and Den Hartog (2004) predicted that transformational leadership would be more appropriate for project managers. However, in their study, even though they found a preference for transformational leadership, they could find no significant link. Thus, across all projects, that one dimension was not a significant determinant of success as a project manager. Although it does not disprove our first question, this one dimension is not significant. However, based on the work of Dulewicz and Higgs (2003), and the results of interviews described later, we would predict that they would find a transformational leadership style preferred on complex-change projects and a transactional style preferred on simple engineering projects. So certain leadership styles are not appropriate on all projects, but different types of leadership style are appropriate on different types of projects.

Competence school

Crawford (2001, 2005) has investigated the competence of project managers, and has found different competence profiles appropriate for different types of projects. She classified projects by according to numerous criteria, including application area (engineering, information systems, business) and country (Australia, US, UK), among other ways. Although she found that different competence profiles were appropriate on different projects, she did not investigate leadership style.

Emotional intelligence school

Lee-Kelly and Leong (2003) set out to find whether a project manager’s familiarity with the project management knowledge areas was a determinant of success as a project manager. What they found was that a project manager’s self-confidence and self-belief, arising out of experience as a project manager, influenced his or her perception of success. Thus the manager’s emotional intelligence affects perception of success, which can feed through to make success (or failure) a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this is not related to type of project.

Research Methodology

Our research involves five stages:

Stage 1: Review the literature.

Stage 2: Develop a research model based on the literature review

Stage 3: Conduct qualitative, semi-structured interviews to test and revise the research model

Stage 4: Conduct a quantitative, Web-based questionnaire

Stage 5: Validate the results of the Web-based questionnaire through the interviewees

Literature Review

The literature review is completed and is reported above.

Research Model

The aim of our research is two-fold:

  1. That the project manager’s leadership style influences project success.
  2. That different leadership styles are appropriate for different types of project.

From our literature review, we have formulated the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: The project manager’s competency, which includes his or her leadership style, is positively correlated to project success.
Hypothesis 2: Different combinations of project management competency are correlated with success on different types of projects.

Our research model is shown below (Figure 5).

Research model

Figure 5. Research model

Independent variable

The independent variable is project management competence, particularly leadership style. The leadership competencies that we will use to test Hypothesis 1 and 2 are the fifteen competencies identified by Dulewicz and Higgs (2003), listed in Figure 2.

Dependent variable

The dependent variable is project success. Many different ways of judging project success, both quantitative and qualitative, have been suggested, (e.g., Turner, 1999, 2000). We have chosen to use the success criteria suggested by Westerveld and Gaya-Walters (2001):

  • Appreciation of the sponsor
  • Appreciation of the users
  • Appreciation of suppliers
  • Appreciation of the project team
  • Appreciation of other stakeholders

The measures of project success that we will use to test Hypotheses 1 and 2 are the first four of these. In our research, we are asking our respondents to make qualitative judgements of these parameters, and we are expecting our respondents to be sponsors, users, suppliers, and project team members. Thus they can assess their own appreciation. They are less able to assess the appreciation of other stakeholders. If we achieve a positive result with these definitions of success criteria, the hypotheses will be supported. If we achieve a null result, the hypotheses will not be disproved because they might be valid against other measures of project success.

Moderating variable

Project type is a moderating variable for Hypothesis 2. The most comprehensive work on project categorization has been done by Crawford et al. (2005). They suggest two primary purposes of project categorization systems:

  1. Strategic alignment: Aligning the projects an organization undertakes with its strategic objectives
  2. Capability specialization: Developing the capability to deliver the selected projects and assign appropriate capabilities to the management of the projects

Thus they suggest a reason for categorizing projects is to select appropriate competencies for their delivery, and that presumably might encompass choosing appropriate leadership competencies. They also suggest a large number of ways of categorizing projects. They do not suggest that the list is comprehensive, but they have grouped them into fourteen attribute areas which they do suggest are reasonably comprehensive. They encompass all methods of categorizing projects that they have identified from their focus groups and web-based questionnaire, and are:

  • Application area or product of the project
  • Stage of the life cycle
  • Stand-alone or grouped projects, programs, and portfolios
  • Strategic importance
  • Strategic driver
  • Geography
  • Project scope
  • Project timing
  • Uncertainty, ambiguity, familiarity
  • Risk
  • Customer and supplier relationships
  • Ownership and funding
  • Contractual issues

We do not feel able to encompass all these attribute areas into our research model. We initially chose to limit ourselves to five; but, based on our interviews, we subsequently decided to extend it to six. The six attribute areas, and an associated eighteen types of projects, are listed in Figure 6. Thus our research model is not comprehensive. But if we can answer our research questions in the affirmative for these eighteen types of project, then we can say that:

  • The project manager’s leadership style influences project success.
  • Different styles are appropriate for different types of projects.

We will not have looked at all types of projects, but an affirmative answer for some projects will mean that the managers of project managers ought to consider the leadership style of the project managers when selecting them to manage a project, at least in some circumstances.

A simplified model for project categories

Figure 6. A simplified model for project categories

Interviews, Web-based Questionnaire, and Validation

The results of the interviews are described in the next section. At the time of writing, the Web-based questionnaire and validation have yet to be conducted.

Interviews

We undertook a qualitative study by conducting fourteen semi-structured interviews with project managers and line managers responsible for assigning project managers to projects. The objective of the interviews was to identify factors applied by managers for selecting project managers for different project types. In this section, we describe the companies interviewed, the topics covered, and the results of the interviews against those topics.

Companies Interviewed

We interviewed fourteen people from several companies. To improve the generalizability of the results, we interviewed people from eight countries, listed in Figure 7, and several industries, listed in Figure 8. The firms ranged in size from 50 personnel to 10,000. Projects ranged in size from €50,000 to €500-million.

Countries from which the interviewees came

Figure 7. Countries from which the interviewees came

Industries from which the interviewees came

Figure 8. Industries from which the interviewees came

Structure of the Interviews

The interviews followed a common structure. We asked the interviewees for seven types of information:

  1. To give us some information about their firms
  2. To give us some information about the size and number of projects that they are undertaking
  3. To tell us the type of projects that they are undertaking
  4. Whether they could identify projects from their portfolio which match the types in Figure 5
  5. To tell us how they judge their projects to be successful
  6. To tell us what criteria they use for selecting project managers
  7. To rank the leadership competencies in Figure 2 in importance (as high, medium, or low) as competencies required for managing their projects

Types of Project

All of the organizations interviewed could identify with at least some of the types of project listed in Figure 6, and respondents said that some of these attributes were important in choosing the leadership style of the project manager. When initially asked the types of project that they undertook, some interviewees said that they undertook types than the fourteen attribute areas identified by Crawford et al. (2005).

Application area

All the firms undertook projects from at least one application area, and some two. Two of the firms undertook projects from all three application areas. Interviewees from some of those companies undertaking projects from two or more application areas said that the project manager’s competence was a criterion for assigning the project manager to a project. Most considered that the project manager’s technical knowledge and experience were important, but some also mentioned leadership style. For example, one of the interviewees from a telecommunications company said that her organization undertook information systems and business change projects. Project managers for information systems projects should be technically competent and task-focused. But leadership skills are significant for organizational change projects. On those projects, the manager must be able to communicate with stakeholders, and deal with their emotions, particularly their fear, aggression, and conflict. They must also be able to deal with ambiguity. The project manager must be self-confident, stable, and tolerant; that is, they must exhibit moderation.

Complexity

Interviewees from only seven of the firms interviewed defined what they meant by complexity, and it differed from firm to firm. Criteria for defining complexity included: size of project; number of departments involved; number and type of stakeholders; location of the project; form of contract.

Many of the interviewees identifying complexity said that the project manager’s leadership style was an issue when choosing the manager for complex projects, but not for simple projects. Two interviewees said that they would carefully consider the leadership style of the manager for projects in Nigeria, but not for other geographies, including other African countries. One also said that leadership style was important when choosing the manager for a brown-field, retrofit project with a remeasurement contract, but not for a Greenfield project with a fixed-price contract. The interviewee above said that she would consider leadership style for organizational change projects, but not for information systems projects. The managing director of a project management consultancy described one project which had a significant environmental impact. He assigned two project managers, one to communicate with the outside world, particularly the environmental lobby, and another to communicate with project resources, mainly academics who were providing the science. He maintained that these required two different leadership skills.

Life-cycle stage

All the organizations undertook projects from several of the project management life cycle, but no interviewees said that the stage of the life cycle was a significant factor in choosing the project manager. One interviewee, working on information systems projects in the telecommunication company mentioned above, said that the concept, feasibility, and implementation stages would be managed by somebody from the business, and the design stage by somebody from the information systems department. The main reason that he gave was that design required technical knowledge, whereas the other stages required business knowledge. But his colleague above also said that the management of stakeholders is significant during implementation, but she went on to say that it is not as significant as it is in pure organizational change projects. The managing director of the project management consultancy mentioned above also said they were often involved in post-completion as expert witnesses in litigation. But people are chosen for that for their project management knowledge.

Strategic importance

All interviewees recognized strategic importance as a way of classifying projects. They had different ways of classifying strategic importance. None mentioned it as a criterion for selecting project managers per se, but often projects of higher strategic importance were considered more complex, which was then the criterion for choosing the project manager.

Culture

All the companies undertook projects in their home country. Some hosted clients or resources from outside their country, some conducted projects in external territories. Seldom was the leadership style of the project manager significant when choosing managers for projects involving other cultures. Some firms worked regularly with other cultures; they expected their project managers to be culturally sensitive: This was an entry ticket to joining the pool of potential project managers. Competencies that were considered were knowledge of the local language and local legal system. As we said above, two interviewees considered leadership skills when choosing managers for certain geographies, but not others. Project managers for those geographies must be self-confident, stable, and tolerant; Meaning that they must (again) exhibit moderation.

Contract type

We did not initially include contract type in our research model, but five interviewees separately mentioned it as being significant, with different contract types requiring different leadership styles. Managers of fixed-price contracts must be task-focused and determined to have their way. Managers of remeasurement and alliance contracts must be flexible, willing to listen to other people’s ideas and accept their views. Project managers of remeasurement and alliance contracts must be tolerant of others’ views and (yet again) exhibit moderation.

Other attributes

Some interviewees suggested that other attributes not included in Figure 6 were important for choosing the project manager’s leadership style and competence. For instance, the nature of the client and project scope and timing were mentioned.

Success Criteria

To ensure that our model is relevant, we asked the interviewees how they judged project success. As we said above, it is not necessary that we cover all criteria for success, but the ones we do include should be significant. Figure 9 shows the success criteria mentioned, and the number of times each was mentioned. The last two might appear to be success factors, but they can influence the appreciation of the project team. The first two relate directly to appreciation by the sponsor. We have chosen to ignore stakeholder satisfaction. The others will all influence appreciation by the client, users, and project team. Appreciation by suppliers does not seem to be significant, although objectives, cost, time, safety, dealing with issues, and project prioritization may influence their appreciation of the project.

Success criteria and times mentioned

Figure 9. Success criteria and times mentioned

Criteria for Selecting Project Managers

With regard to what criteria are important for choosing project managers for a given project, there were several common themes:

  1. Interviewees from most firms said that the competence of the project manager is important, and mentioned technical expertise, project management expertise, and experience. This is consistent with the competence models of Crawford (2005). Interviewees said that different competence profiles were important for different types of project. Different projects required different technical skills, more or less advanced project management skills, and different amounts of experience. The mention of experience confirms the work of Lee-Kelly et al. (2003) that experience can influence a manager’s self-confidence and perception of success.
  2. Interviewees from most firms said that leadership style is important on complex projects but not on simple projects, although they had different ways of defining complexity. This suggests that if Keegan and Den Hartog (2004) had limited themselves to complex projects, they might have achieved a positive result, but confirms their null result when they look at all projects.
  3. Interviewees from many firms said that competence and leadership style is important for project managers, but all project managers in the pool of potential have a minimum level of the necessary competencies, so they are not considered when choosing a project manager for a given project. For instance, a Dutch consultant said that all project managers must be politically sensitive. They do two types of work: consultancy and the provision of project management personnel. Those two types of assignment require different leadership and competence profiles, but there are two pools of potential project managers to draw on. A French mechanical design and construction contractor said that, because they were family owned, maintaining a good relationship with the client was more important than maximizing profit on each job. This is because the firm wants to exist in perpetuity (perenité), not increase dividends to shareholders year after year. For this reason, the firm would train their own project managers, recruiting potential project managers directly from universities, and only one in five recruits would eventually become a project manager with the necessary client management skills. Thus, in many organizations, competence and leadership style is an entry ticket to the pool of potential project managers, not a criterion for selecting the manager for a given project.

Figure 10 lists criteria mentioned by our interviewees for selecting project managers for a given project, and the number of times each was mentioned. The first four (those mentioned most often) specifically relate to leadership skills. Cultural sensitivity is a leadership skill, but, as we said above, the ability to work in other geographies is sometimes a technical skill. The next three mix technical project management and leadership skills. The last two relate to self-management and emotional intelligence.

These cover the attributes in Figure 6, but also include other attributes listed by Crawford et al, (2005), such as the client, and timing and scope of the project. Thus our research model covers most criteria, but is not comprehensive. Thus, as we have said before, if we achieve an affirmative result for our hypotheses, they will be supported, but if we achieve a null result, they will not be disproved.

Criteria for selecting project managers for given projects

Figure 10. Criteria for selecting project managers for given projects

Rating of Leadership Competencies

We asked the interviewees to rate the leadership competencies in Figure 2 in importance, as high, medium and low. We then assigned 3 for high, 2 for medium, and 1 for low, and calculated the average for each competence and the average for each group. The results are not statistically significant, but the results seem to suggest that emotional and managerial competencies are more important than intellectual competencies for project managers. Project managers must be able to handle their emotions and manage people and the project, but don’t need to be particularly intelligent. We also rated the individual competencies. By the scale above, all would score medium to high, but to differentiate here, we evaluated those scoring 1.9 to 2.2 as low, 2.3 to 2.5 as high, and 2.6 to 2.7 as high. Those scoring low were vision and imagination, strategic perspective, developing others, and intuitiveness. We are very surprised by the low score of developing others, and saddened by the low score of vision and imagination, and strategic perspective. Those scoring high are managing resources, achieving (self-motivation), and motivation of others. These are not surprising.

We also analysed the interviews quantitatively for differences by industry, project type, and international versus domestic. The results should be interpreted as tendencies only, due to the small sample size.

  1. Analysis for differences by industry (at a significance level of .10) indicates that the need for emotional resilience is significantly higher for projects in the engineering and construction industry than in the service industry (p < .075), and the need for an ability to influence is significantly higher in the information systems industry than in the service industry (p < .090). Both are EQ-related leadership dimensions.
  2. Assessment for difference by project type indicates that leadership dimensions differ by the strategic importance of projects. The need for vision and imagination is significantly higher in renewal projects than in repositioning projects (p < .091); and for sensitivity, it is significantly higher in repositioning projects than in renewal projects (p < .031). These are IQ and EQ dimensions.
  3. Further differences were found by the domestic or international scope of the projects. Strategic perspective and motivation were found to be significantly higher for international than for domestic projects (p < .010 and .043 respectively). These are also IQ and EQ dimensions. This indicates the need for different EQ and IQ profiles for different project types.
Ratings for the leadership competencies

Figure 11. Ratings for the leadership competencies

Web-based Questionnaire

A subsequent quantitative study will be performed both to validate the results from the qualitative study and to collect data on personality and project types that allow for a comprehensive quantitative analysis and a test of hypotheses.

Conclusions

The conclusion so far is that the competence of the project manager, including his or her leadership style, is a significant contributing factor to project success, and that organizations consider this when selecting project managers. Different competency profiles are required for different types of project.

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