Project leadership, is it within you?


Project success criteria traditionally have been defined as scope, time, and cost. A fourth element to consider that perhaps should be the first element to consider is project leadership. This paper reveals what research has been conducted to date that examines the leadership capabilities of the project manager and suggests some questions to consider before an entity embarks upon a new project and dedicates project resources to the effort. The first part of this paper defines project success criteria, then examines project leadership capabilities and closes with questions to consider when developing project teams and questions for further research on the topic. Finally, the paper reveals a practice that is designed to promote project success: the idea of identifying and including the project manager as soon as the project concept is formulated and agreed upon.


Defining the Project Elements for Success

Oftentimes it is said that the foundation of project management is the triple constraint, or as it is sometimes called, the iron triangle, or project influences. No doubt, this set of deliverables contains the most important information for all stakeholders to understand to clearly build the definition of the project's success and thus establish client/stakeholder expectations for the project. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008) no longer provides a graphic that details the triple constraint, however, words have been included in the new edition that embrace the concept and expend it to include the following concepts.


The triple constraint's foundational element is the project's scope statement. The term scope is defined by the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) as “the sum of the products, services, and results to be provided as a part of a project” (p. 440). In addition, the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition defined project scope as “the work that must be performed to deliver a product, service, or result with the specified features and functions” (p. 436). The concept of project scope is closely tied to the concept of project quality.


Quality is defined by the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) as the degree which a set of inherent characteristics fulfills requirements. (p. 437) Project scope and quality should always be paired together, that is to say that the scope is what work the project team must perform and the idea of quality captures how well the work must be performed to meet the expectations of the client or end user of the project's products. Combining project scope and quality encompasses the theory of project performance.


The next essential element of the triple constraint is time, which in project management speak is defined as the project schedule. The project schedule is defined by the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) as “the planned dates for performing schedule activities and the planned dates for meeting schedule milestones” (p. 436).


The last section of the constraint deals with project costs, the cost estimate. The PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) defined the activity cost estimate as “a quantifiable assessment of the probable costs required to complete project work” (p 174.). Exhibit 1, taken from the author's Project Management Leadership curriculum, presents the three elements discussed in concert.

The Triple Constraint

Exhibit 1: The Triple Constraint

Work Breakdown Structure

The reader will note that Exhibit 1 contains some other important project elements as well, for example, the project's work breakdown structure (WBS). According to The PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008), the project's WBS should be designed to “be a deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and required deliverables. It organizes and defines the total scope of the project.” (p. 116). It is designed to provide more insight or details than the project scope statement about the work that must be done to accomplish the goals of the project.


Another area contained in the graphic is risk. The inclusion of the concept of risk is designed to remind the reviewer of the triple constraint that the work of the project possibly contains “uncertain events or conditions that, if it occurs, could have a negative or positive effect on a project's objectives like project success.” (PMI 2008. P. 446)


The next area included in the graphic is that of project communications. All of the other areas already mentioned will provide the project team with information about their project that they must share with the stakeholders, to accurately reflect the true status of the project. To communicate one must understand the information that needs to be shared with others, develop a method to share that information, implement that method of sharing information, and then await feedback of confirmation and questions for clarification about the information being shared, to be an effective communicator.


Another area represented in the graphic is that of project resources, which is defined by PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) as “skilled human resources (specific disciplines either individually or in crews or teams), equipment, services, supplies, commodities, material, budget, or funds” (p. 438). The concept of the triple constraint is that all three sides—scope, time, cost—are interdependent and should one grow or shrink the others will grow or shrink to match, directly affecting the number of project resources needed to effectively execute the project.

Project Leadership

The last element from the triple constraint graphic is the most important one, I believe, for project success—project management leadership. Leadership is commonly defined as “a relationship through which one person influences the behavior of other people” (Mullins in Muller & Turner, 1996) Leadership involves providing direction and motivating others in their role or task to fulfill the project's objectives. It is a vital competence for the project manager.

Interestingly enough, while researching for this paper, I have noted that project leadership research appears to lag behind the research done in others areas of project management. Most of the elements of project management can be assigned to one of two areas or disciplines that are science or art. For example, the work required to create the project scope or schedule and cost is a science. Perhaps project communications and possibly elements of risk management can be considered art. Project leadership is both and is most dynamic. Most every student of project management concepts can learn the required skills to build a scope statement, project schedule, and cost estimates. Those same students can learn the essence and definitions of all the leading leadership's methods and models. However, when to utilize in practice, one leadership method, or model may be considered more of an art and is extremely demanding. This process of choosing a leadership method is the essence of effective project leadership.

Effective Project Leadership Methods

To be an effective project manager, one cannot decide upon and use a singular method for all projects and personal interactions, one must be able to utilize properly many different methods of leadership at varying times of the project and with the varying people who will work on the project. Research supports the concept that effective leadership measurement is most difficult to do as many elements of project leadership requirements differ from moment to moment on a project, making effective project leadership research inconclusive and difficult. It is recognized that projects are temporary in nature and by definition, perhaps so too is the model of practice of project leadership. Turner and Müller (2005) stated in “The Project Manager's Leadership Style as a Success Factor on Projects: A Literature Review” that “while researching literature on project success factors, they found that the literature “largely ignores the project manager, and his or her leadership style and competence.” (p. 49)

Leadership Characteristics

Much research has been completed that evaluates the expected qualities and leadership characteristics that a probable successful project manager should have and demonstrate, yet it appears as if not much research has been performed and reported that assess the successful project manager's leadership qualities utilized during project performance. Exhibit 2 from Müller and Turner (2007) contains information about the six modern and three historical schools of leadership, their main idea, and example authors.

Schools of leadership (Muller & Turner, 2007, p22)

Exhibit 2: Schools of leadership (Muller & Turner, 2007, p22)

It is not the aim of this effort to further delineate or explain the these schools of leadership. The inclusion of the information was done so for purposes of providing the reader with a general knowledge of the history of leadership thought content. Also, allowing for the recognition that while currently very little application research of leadership capabilities has been completed, the ideas that encompass leadership practices have been long seeded in human thought.

Müller and Turner (2007) cited research conducted by Lee-Kelley and Leong (2003), who attempted to discover whether a project manager's familiarity with the project management Knowledge Areas was a determinant factor of their success as a project manager. Their findings indicated that a project manager's self-confidence and self-belief, arising out of their experience as a project manager, influenced their perception of success. The paper goes on to equate emotional intelligence affecting their perception of success as a major driver. It is not the aim of this effort to state or even suggest that one's self-perception directly correlates to project success. However, a suggestion of a pause to reflect upon the definition of project success and matching project resources to project responsibilities requires the question to be stated, how are project manager's selected or chosen for projects at your place of employment?

Research is just beginning to examine, in depth, the relationship of the chosen project manager's skill set and his or her emotional intelligence as the project matures through its life cycle. Should there be more concern and awareness of the proposed project manager's leadership capabilities and his or her emotional intelligence on the behalf of the project sponsor? Lee-Kelley and Leong's research suggested that, yes, it would be a benefit to the project to assess the proposed project manager's leadership capabilities. Project managers should be chosen for the project based upon his or her managerial competence, and not their command of a technical skill set. The next logical question would then be how to do such an assessment of the proposed project manager's leadership capabilities?

Project Management and Functional Management

Turner, Müller, and Dulewicz (2009) reported findings that project managers score higher than functional managers in several areas related to emotional intelligence, such as, conscientiousness, sensitivity, and critical analysis. That same research also finds that project managers score lower than functional managers in areas related to communications and the development competencies. The findings from that research support the idea that a single resource should not work dual roles in the company. The same resource should not be moved from functional management to project management and from project management to functional management without providing an assessment and training to help assist the resource to gain practical skills that may be lacking in one environment or the other. A frequent switch between project and line management roles is, therefore, only recommended to gain short-term insight in different organizational processes or to satisfy a person's job-enrichment desires, but not as a long-term personal strategy. In addition, an area to be considered is the answer to the question; is this candidate who is performing well in the current role able to perform as well in the new proposed role?

Project Team Member Identification

The next logical question may not deal with the proposed project manager, rather the proposed project team members, those being led by the project manager's leadership capabilities. Are the chosen team members the correct people to witness and be affected by the chosen project manager's leadership capabilities? It is my experience that the answer to that question would be extraordinary and the question itself meritorious. Many teams are populated by perceived project team member's competencies, skills, and abilities. Unfortunately, sometimes teams are populated by those team members who have the capacity to add to their daily workloads and the idea of matching a resource's skill set to the project's success criteria and the proposed project manager's leadership capabilities is foreign or not entertained. In all situations little thought or examination is performed to assess the project manager's total skill set to that of the proposed team member's skill sets, especially when one considers that match of leadership capabilities to that of the people who will be subject to those very same capabilities as a part of the team.

Leadership Style

Research by Keegan and den Hartog (2004) predicted that a project manager's leadership style should be more transformational than transactional; however, no significant association was determined. They did find that although there is a significant correlation between the manager's leadership style and employees’ commitment, motivation, and stress for functional managers, there is no such correlation for project managers and project team members. This lack of findings could be attributed to several factors, such as:

  • The relationship between project and functional managers in a given company environment. Is the project and/or company subject to varied matrix types of situations from weak to strong? A varied matrix organization may allow for the creation of a confusing project work dynamic and environment. If the project resource receives conflicting direction from the functional and project manager, how does the resource decide on the proper course of action? Most likely the resource shall follow or implement the course that the resource determined to provide the best opportunity for personal reward, that of the functional manager direction. As it is the functional manager that writes and submits the annual performance review of the resource, and therefore, it is the direction that will be followed or implemented. Perhaps the project manager is consulted for project input, rarely is the project manager provided with the authority of signature on the resource's review, resulting in less power for the project manager in the matrix organization.
  • What is the evidence of the relationship and support from senior management to project and functional managers?
  • The project dynamic that is variable as well the individual's that comprises both the management and the project team is their emotional intelligence. How stable is it?

Project Manager's Perception and Emotional Intelligence

Other research findings promote the thought that there is a significant relationship between the leader's perception of project success and his or her personality and contingent experiences. Therefore, the inner or personal confidence and self-belief from personal knowledge and experience are likely to provide an important role in a project manager's ability to deliver a project successfully. This thought reinforces the idea and practice of involving the chosen project manager as early as possible in the process of determining the project's critical success factors and the definition of project success. In addition, senior management, those who select and or authorize the project manager, should be mindful of matching the individual with the right project and project resources. Consideration should be given to the concept of the chosen project manager's leadership capabilities and the client's expectations of what that person is and how they conduct their business, is an often-overlooked principle of the client—business relationship. Exhibit 3 provides a breakdown of the concept of emotional intelligence, dimensions, underlying competency, and descriptions.

Emotional Intelligence Chart (Muller, R. Leadership in Technology Project Management (2009) p. 76)

Exhibit 3: Emotional Intelligence Chart (Muller, R. Leadership in Technology Project Management (2009) p. 76)


The winning or most appropriate leadership style appears to be one that is sufficiently flexible to cope with a less-than-perfect context fit. Given that, project management training should initially focus on that leadership style to allow project managers to build a solid base and then add other styles to be used on a contingency basis. This concept builds upon the idea of on-the-job training that would allow a person who desires to be a project manager the ability to witness firsthand the leadership style of others and which styles of leadership were used well in different situations and perhaps not so well. This leadership training should commence with the student learner first assessing his or her own leadership capabilities and formulating an understanding of what leadership skill sets are natural to them, then identifying varying other methods to be used as the contingency response method.

The company or organization that seeks to use effectively their organizational process assets relating to project leadership should seek to establish and utilize a process that provides the following information, per the research of Dr. Ralf Müller: (PMI, 2006)

  1. Recognizes the types of projects that the organization is most like to engage in. For example, will the organization attempt information technology, research and development, change-oriented, regulatory-based projects?
  2. Assesses leadership styles of project managers. Undertake an assessment of the in-house expertise and develop a project manager selection process designed to place the most qualified leader in charge of new project efforts. Also, examine the leadership requirements of the projects discovered as a part of the first step of this process. What project is the organization likely to engage in? Conduct a gap analysis of the results from steps 1 and 2. The analysis will provide sound information for new project manager hiring decisions and current project manager training efforts.
  3. Develops leadership quality profiles in accordance with project needs.
  4. Differentiates different types of projects in the organization. Assess what leadership skills and characteristics are required for the different identified types of projects to be successful.
  5. Values your organization's project managers. Implementation of these four steps will allow for better placement of the organization's project management resources, creating situations where project managers and projects are designed to win, be successful, and add value to the organization.


Keegan AE, Den Hartog DN. Transformational leadership in a project-based environment: a comparative study of the leadership styles of project managers and line managers. Int J Project Manage 2004;22(8):609-18.

Lee-Kelley L, Leong KL. Turner's five functions of project-based management and situational leadership in IT service projects. Int J Project Manage 2003;21(8):583-91.

Mullins, L.J. (1996). Management and organizational behavior. London: Pitman

Müller, R. (2007). Matching the project manager's leadership style to project type. Paper presented at the NASA Project Management Challenge 2007, Houston, TX, USA.

Müller, R. (2009). Leadership in technology project management. In T. Kidd (Ed.), Handbook of research on technology project management, planning and operations. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Müller, R., & Turner, J. (2007). Matching the project manager's leadership style to project type. International Journal of Project Management, 25(1), 21-32.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Turner, J., & Müller, R. (2005). The project manager's leadership style as a success factor on projects: A literature review. Project Management Journal, 36(1), 49–61.

Turner, J., Müller, R., & Dulewicz, V. (2009). Comparing the leadership styles of functional and project managers. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 2(2), 198–216.

Turner, J., Müller, R., (2006) Choosing Appropriate Project Managers, matching their leadership style to the type of project. Newtown Square, PA.: Project Management Institute

© 2009, Chance W. Reichel, PMP, PRINCE2
Originally published as a part of 2009 Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Fl.



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