Project Management Institute

Project leadership--setting the stage

Warren A. Opfer, MBA, PMP, Praxis Management International

Timothy J. Kloppenborg, Ph.D., PMP, Xavier University

Arthur Shriberg, Ph.D., LPCC, Xavier University

We all know of great leaders like President Abraham Lincoln, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian to name a few. Each of these individuals overcame adversity to successfully complete great projects and they are considered by many to be great leaders. All really great leaders have charisma. They can influence people to do things they would not otherwise accomplish and feel good about it while doing it. We all know of people that we look up to as leaders, but what made them so successful in their leadership role?

Certain leadership characteristics and behavior make some leaders more successful than others and certain organizational cultures and environments foster and support project leadership effectiveness. We subscribe to this hypothesis and this is the major premise of our research. Within this research paper, we are documenting some of the current and previously published research in project management to identify clues and insights into perceived key leadership success factors.

Many projects fail. The published statistics on project failures are staggering. Zimmerer and Yasin conducted a survey of senior project managers (Zimmerer and Yasin 1998). The results clearly identify negative leadership factors as the cause of project failure. Rather than focus on what doesn’t work however, we have elected to take a positive approach to determine characteristics of leadership that lead to project success. Our objective is to “set the stage” for future projects to benefit from more effective leadership and a more effective leadership environment by identifying specific project leadership factors, characteristics, and behaviors that lead to successful project completion. Our research focuses on leadership characteristics from an individual, team, and organizational perspective.


This work is based on research currently being conducted by the authors and research conducted by the Kloppenborg and Opfer, et al research team in late 1999 and early 2000. In that 1999–2000 research project, the authors surveyed all of the published materials on project management from 1960 to 2000. The research team surveyed over 100,000 documents including books, periodicals, scholarly papers, theses, and dissertations. We constructed a database of the 3,554 documents from this universe that met the following stringent definition of project management research (Kloppenborg and Opfer 2000). Additional literature searches have been performed for current research material published in the last two years.

Project management research includes published works that: 1) are based upon data, 2) make generalizable conclusions drawn from the data, and 3) contain data and conclusions that focus on either the project management context or the management activities (not the technical activities) needed to complete a project successfully. The research definition used is the current one accepted by the Project Management Institute (PMI®). Our research focuses on the leadership aspects of project management and project success factors. We will update the citations in the database related to leadership as we complete our current literature search.

As practitioners, we have also observed that some individuals are natural leaders and are predictably successful. We have also observed that some organizations do much better in effective project execution than others. This has led us to the hypothesis that certain factors may be predictors for project success. We will also explore various authors’ definitions of what constitutes project success. One conclusion drawn from recent practitioner workshop discussions on project management and leadership is that lack of leadership is considered a primary cause of project failure (Tesch and Kloppenborg 2002). Additionally, our observations and research lead us to believe that traditionally there are significant differences in what motivates project managers in leadership roles between government and industry.


In this paper we use the term project leader, which has different meanings in different industries, both in responsibilities and organizational level. We use the term project leader to indicate the individual with the overall authority and responsibility for the successful completion of the project. We will first discuss individual aspects of project leadership, move into team aspects, and summarize by describing what we call a true project leader.

Exhibit 1. Transformational versus Transactional Leadership

Transformational versus Transactional Leadership

What Are the Individual Aspects of Leadership?

Larson and LaFasto concluded that three consistent characteristics of effective leaders are: 1) they establish a vision, 2) they create change, and 3) they unleash talent (Larson and LaFasto 1989).

Kotter’s research identified these necessary requirements of effective leadership (Kotter 1988):

1. Industry and organizational knowledge

2. Solid relationships in the firm and industry

3. An excellent reputation and a strong track record

4. Abilities and skills that include a keen mind and strong interpersonal skills

5. Personal values that broadly appreciate all peoples and groups

6. The ability to motivate through high energy and a strong desire to lead

Exhibit 2. Key Characteristics of Effective Teams

Key Characteristics of Effective Teams

Effective leadership demands that the individual be competent in a wide variety of skills and abilities. Leaders need to be especially strong in the areas of interpersonal skills, negotiation, and conflict management. The following list of interpersonal and leadership skills and abilities along with technical and administrative skills were associated with effective project leadership (Thamhain 1991).

1. Clear direction and guidance

2. Ability to plan and elicit commitments

3. Communication skills

4. Assistance in problem solving

5. Dealing effectively with managers and support personnel across functional lines, often with little or no formal authority

6. Information processing skills—the ability to collect and filter relevant data valid for decision-making in a dynamic environment

7. Ability to integrate individual demands, requirements, and limitations into decisions that benefit the overall project

8. Ability to resolve intergroup conflicts

9. Ability to build multifunctional teams

There are two distinct forms of leadership—transformational and transactional (Pinto et al 1998). Leaders must choose which of these they intend to emulate. Transformational leaders set out to make their mark on an organization and do. They are doers. They are great visionaries, forward thinking, articulate, and often charismatic. They are also the most effective leaders. They know how to get things done with a team of people, have fun with it, and make people feel good about what they are doing. Transactional leaders are focused on the tasks at hand and view the work as a set of discrete transactions between them and their subordinates. They are task-driven and not likely to empower team members or to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. They see problems as just that—problems, or worse, problems are seen as threats. The following chart, Exhibit 1, highlights some attributes of leadership and provides a comparison of transformational versus transactional characteristics (DuBrin 1995).

What Are the Team Aspects of Leadership?

Martin and Wysocki identified three elements contributing to the overall project team success—environmental elements affecting the project management team, leadership style of the project manager, and the motivation of team members. The essential message from this work is that the contingency theory of leadership has much utility for the project manager. Contingency theory is the matching of the project manager’s traits with the team member needs and the project situation. This also suggests that the project manager must select the appropriate leadership style from many possible styles for the situation so that project success will be realized not just hypothesized (Martin and Wysocki 1990).

Pinto et al identified five factors that they found in common among the many writers on the subject of effective teams. These factors are 1) a clear sense of mission, 2) an understanding of interdependencies, 3) cohesiveness, 4) trust among team members, and 5) a shared sense of enthusiasm (Pinto et al 1998).

Many have researched leadership styles and their effect on project management. Thamhain and Wilemon worked to develop new insights into possible differences in the effectiveness of leadership styles depending on various task complexities or organizational climates. They suggest that there is a continuum of possibilities that must be considered in selecting a leadership style and that the leader has a strong influence over the organizational climate (Thamhain and Wilemon 1976). The interdependence of the three aspects of leadership is very apparent. Individual, team and organizational aspects of leadership cannot stand alone and must be used in concert to be fully effective. Leadership style may have to be adapted from one environment to another and possibly from one project to another. Leaders may not always have the influence of the organizational culture they may desire. Cultural changes are the most difficult to institutionalize.

Kloppenborg and Petrick suggest responsible project leadership requires both “team character development competency and team technical competency.” They go on to say that project completion is delayed by lack of project team character development because of dysfunctional conduct on the part of team members. Dysfunctional conduct includes substandard performance, avoidance of responsibility, insensitivity to project problems, late completion of tasks, tardiness, leaving early, and the weakening of team collaboration (Kloppenborg and Petrick 1999). Leadership is a key to team cohesiveness and commitment.

The effective team leader is usually a social architect who understands the intersection of organization and behavioral variables and can foster a climate of active participation and minimal dysfunctional conflict. (Thamhain 1999)

Mower and Wilemon developed a list of characteristics of effective teams as they relate to a team culture. Organizations culturally transmit values to its members and so too a team creates a culture through which it transmits its values to its members. They described team building as a process designed to develop task and interpersonal team competencies (Mower and Wilemon 1989). The table in Exhibit 2 highlights key variables and characteristics of effective teams.

Teamwork involves sharing ability, energy, and leadership and playing multiple roles. For top project performance, team managers and members must learn a combination of competencies. High performance in such teams can be ensured by providing both technical and interpersonal training (Harris and Harris 1989).

Empowerment is dependent on understanding the roles of the participants and successfully fulfilling those roles. Participants must accept these roles and responsibilities. Empowerment doesn’t work if upper management does not understand the issues. This point emerged from the discussions at the PMI Lessons Learned Workshop in Cincinnati (Tesch and Kloppenborg 2002).

Another factor that was discussed at the PMI Lessons Learned Workshop in Cincinnati was that a trend has emerged regarding the increased use of virtual teams both locally and globally (Tesch and Kloppenborg 2002). Companies are allowing team members to work from their home or remote offices rather than collocating the teams as has occurred in the past. This saves the company some expense, but also adds risk and leadership challenges. Planning is more critical in virtual environments and the project requirements must be crisp and closely managed.

What Are the Big Picture, Organizational, and Cultural Considerations?

Let’s start with the big picture. Maxwell indicated that leaders express their visions as simply as possible (Maxwell 2000). Project leaders use vision to guide daily actions and decisions. This is an important aspect because project leaders must understand organizations, their cultures, and strategic issues as well as specific projects at different levels: as part of a larger system, as the system itself, and its parts. This applies equally within the enterprise and within client organizations. This big picture view is a critical attribute in leadership. Project leaders should be able to analyze complex projects, tradeoffs in project decisions, and be able to understand the possible consequences. Leaders can see both problems and solutions others may not see. Leaders see needs and are motivated to act. They will prioritize and reprioritize the work as needed to get the job done. Zimmerer and Yasin concluded in their study that organizational effectiveness requires project managers to combine their technical competency with the ability to develop and display leadership (Zimmerer and Yasin 1998).

The company senior management team needs to set the climate and the environment for leadership to flourish. Clear policy, guidance and direction are needed, as well as visible and vocal support for the leaders and the projects. Proper leadership can create an environment of high concern for the people and the work, foster personal motivation and enthusiasm for the project, and create a willingness to establish open, effective communications channels. These actions promote member involvement, commitment, and decision-making. Company management can influence the climate and team process, facilitate communications, and cross-functional alliances (Thamhain 1999).

Thamhain and Wilemon worked to develop new insights into possible differences in the effectiveness of leadership styles depending on various task complexities or organizational climates. Based on the study, the authors formulated tentative conclusions: 1) The effectiveness of the project manager depends on his leadership style and his work environment. A leader-oriented management approach appears most effective in a poor organizational environment where communications, work continuity, and career growth are inferior. However, in a good organizational climate, a team-oriented style seems to be most effective. 2) Task complexity and the position power of the project manager do not appear to be an important determinant of the leadership style. While the effectiveness of a particular style may be influenced by the degree of position power and task complexity, the choice between leadership styles seems to depend only on the organizational climate. From their study, they concluded that project managers must not only be able to adapt their leadership style to the prevailing work situation, but should also have the ability to develop an organizational climate conducive to the effective functioning of high performing project teams. This suggests that there is a continuum of possibilities that must be considered in selecting a leadership style and that the leader has a strong influence over the organizational climate (Thamhain and Wilemon 1976).

Project leaders need top management support and to be secure in their position. Project leaders must also believe in the project and demonstrate commitment. That requires them to understand the purpose of what they are doing. Project leadership requires the setting of a clear direction so project teams can make decisions consistent with that direction (Mohrman and Mohrman 1997). Project leaders often have more responsibility than authority. They must use influence (leadership) to achieve their objectives. Project leaders must be adept at dealing with adversity and conflict and must excel in their ability to “broker” compromises and solutions.

Norrgren and Schaller conducted a study as part of an interdisciplinary research project involving technological, organizational, and behavioral analysis of cross-functional product development projects in six companies. The results of the analysis, points to the leader’s behavior rather than his power as an important factor determining the work climate in successful cross-functional product development projects (Norrgren and Schaller 1999).

What is “True” Project Leadership?

Many have attempted to define leadership. We have no intention to add to the already long list of definitions. Instead we intend to discuss what leaders do and characteristics that are linked to success. McClelland is generally credited with coining the term “competencies” to refer to factors related to success (McClelland 1972). Boyatzis presented a model of competencies based on behavioral or personal competencies (Boyatzis 1982). They recognized that certain factors and behaviors bred success. Effective leadership requires the highest order of competency and commitment. We believe that there are specific competencies and behaviors required for successful project leadership.

Some key characteristics of “true” leaders are the ability to apply both skills and wisdom. A wise leader will admit mistakes, accept blame, and develop means to ensure the same mistake does not recur. Project leaders need to establish trust, integrity, and reciprocity with all stakeholders. Project leaders are good stewards for the organization (Maxwell 2000). Project leaders are stewards of the company’s assets, including the most important assets, the people, whose abilities should be enhanced through project work and mentoring (Mohrman and Mohrman 1997). Project leaders need to be authentic to maintain respect and work for all stakeholders. Project leaders should follow when appropriate. Leadership by following is a difficult concept for many. “True” project leaders are not focused on self and do not care who gets the credit (Thamhain and Wilemon 1976). This is also a difficult concept for some.

The research literature suggests that leaders develop other leaders and that over 90 percent of the skills and abilities needed to be an effective leader can be learned. Most of this learning is achieved through experience. We feel this is very important because mentoring leaders can be an effective way to develop additional effective leaders. Some key elements of providing an organizational environment in which leaders can develop their skills and perform effectively include:

1. Clarity of strategic and tactical management direction

2. Communication at all levels in an organization

3. Providing sponsorship and motivational support

4. Providing access to and time for formal education and workshops

5. Access to forums that provide exposure to industry “best practices”

6. Job rotation to provide the broadest experience base

7. A formal “lessons learned” program within the firm or in an industry consortium

8. Coaching and mentoring from upper management

9. Providing opportunities for technical as well as general management career paths

Maxwell stated that the influence of a true leader will continue to increase over time (Maxwell 2000). Future projects will benefit from more effective leadership and a more effective leadership environment. Identifying and internalizing the key project leadership factors, characteristics, and behaviors will lead to successful projects. The following is a list of some of these factors, characteristics, and behaviors:

1. Project leaders must actively secure and nurture top management support.

2. Project leaders must believe in the project and demonstrate commitment.

3. Project leaders should be able to acquire necessary resources.

4. Project leaders must be able to negotiate for everything.

5. All really great leaders have charisma. They can influence people to do things they would not otherwise accomplish and to feel good about it while doing it.

6. An effective leader needs to continue to prove himself (Maxwell 2000).

7. Project leaders should be able to avoid both the reality and the perception of conflict of interest.

8. Project leaders need to be secure in their position. That requires them to understand the purpose behind the project and how the results of the project will be used (Maxwell 2000).

9. Project leadership requires both “team character development competency and team technical competency” (Kloppenborg and Petrick 1999).

10. Project leadership needs to set clear direction so that project teams can make decisions consistent with that direction (Morhman and Morhman 1997).

11. Project leaders need to work with the project stake-holders and other stakeholders to the extent practical (Morhman and Morhman 1997).

12. Project leaders must understand conflict, use it when it is constructive but avoid or mitigate it when it is destructive.

13. Project leaders need to involve workers in planning work and communicating progress.

14. Project leaders should follow, when appropriate.

15. Project leaders should actively listen.

16. Project leaders should encourage teams and individuals to self-manage as much as possible or, said another way, project leaders should share leadership (Morhman and Morhman 1997).

17. Project leaders should be able to build team involvement, commitment, trust, and consensus.

Exhibit 3. Project Leadership Practices across the Project Life Cycle

Project Leadership Practices across the Project Life Cycle

18. Project leaders must motivate clients, suppliers, team, and executive management.

19. Project leaders should be able to assess team strengths and weaknesses and facilitate the team members continued growth both as a team and as individuals’ performers. Project leaders must understand the stages of team development.

20. Leaders spend time organizing people as well as motivating them (Maxwell 2000).

21. Project leaders do not care who gets credit (Maxwell 2000).

22. Project leaders do not confuse position with leadership ability (Maxwell 2000).

23. Project leaders must live by the rules—the ends do not justify any means (Maxwell 2000).

24. A wise leader seeks challenges—especially ones that help him or her learn (Maxwell 2000).

25. Project leaders must keep balance in attitude—don’t let wild swings in optimism impact the team or project.

26. Leaders need a time and place to think (Maxwell 2000).

27. Project leaders should be willing to accept some ambiguity—but also know when it is time to create order—and how much order is needed.

28. Project leaders must be technically credible.

29. Project leaders need to be able to understand work interdependencies and use that knowledge to structure project teams (Morhman and Morhman 1997).

30. Project leaders need to complete administrative tasks (Morhman and Morhman 1997).

31. Project leaders must understand project management methodology.

32. Project leaders must be able to lead the development of defensible project plans.

33. Project leaders must diagnose and manage stress personally as well as in the team.

Leadership is needed throughout the project life cycle for a project to be successful. It is definitely not a part-time job. The competency and commitment of the leader and the whole project team are major determinants of success. We have identified some project leadership practices across the project life cycle stages. The chart in Exhibit 3 reflects three elements that run across the project life-cycle stages and focus on type of consideration and activities that must take place in each stage.

A final but important point is that project leaders need to have an understanding of technology, but do not necessarily need in-depth technical skills and knowledge. The use of team members that are subject matter experts is often used as an effective technique to supply the required expertise.


Some people seem to be born leaders. Others of us have to work at it. Leadership is a state of mind, an attitude, as much as it is a set of attributes or characteristics. It is a willingness to take personal risk, to show genuine concern for the company, client, project and, above all, the people. The aspects of leadership fall into individual, team, and organizational categories. These are completely interdependent and cannot stand alone and lead to project success. Top management support in cultural and environmental areas establishes a foundation for leadership success. Direct support for the project leader from executive management is also critical to success.

We have determined that certain leadership characteristics appear to correlate directly with project success. The good news is that the majority of the skills and competencies required to be a successful project leader can be learned and that coaching and mentoring are instrumental in a leader’s development.

We are continuing our research to further develop and validate an inventory of success factors and leadership characteristics.


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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002



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