GPM First
Chapter 6 of Project-Oriented Leadership (978-0-5660-8923-7) by Ralf Müller and J Rodney Turner

Towards a Leadership Competence Theory of Project Performance


In this chapter we integrate the subjects addressed in the earlier chapters into an emerging theory of project performance, based on the leadership competencies of the project manager. We finish the chapter with a brief look into the future of leadership in projects.

Leadership Competence as a Project Success Factor

Throughout this book, and particularly in Chapter 4, we have shown that leadership competencies are a factor for project success. To be a success factor, different combinations of competencies are needed for different types of projects. Table 6.1 summarizes this by showing the main competencies related to project success in different types of projects. However, as important as the main competencies are for project success, they do not act in a vacuum and they need to be complemented by further competencies which only become important in specific circumstances. Their importance is dependent on the specifics of an individual project within a project type, such as contract type, complexity and so on (see Table 4.2 to 4.4). Supporting dimensions of competence are not directly related to project success. They complement the other competencies for a well-rounded personality of the project manager.

Successful leadership is dependent on finding the right leadership style for the people to be led. People are different in different project types, and so are the required leadership styles. Looking at Table 6.1 from left to right we see a continuum from tangible to intangible outputs of projects. The most tangible are the outputs from engineering and construction projects. This is followed by slightly more intangible outputs in IT projects, which are typically a combination of systems (hardware and software) and work processes. Finally organizational change projects create the most intangible outputs, as they are about processes and working relationships.

At the extremes of the continuum from tangible to intangible project outputs, the projects with tangible outputs require project managers who know what is expected in their role and ‘just do it’, with attention to detail and commitment, and without a far reaching vision. They sense what is going on in the team through empathy and interpersonal sensitivity and lead the team by example, offering themselves as a role model in terms of what they say and do.

Table 6.1 Hierarchy of importance of leadership competencies by project type


Project type

Engineering and Construction


Organizational Change

Main competencies

Conscientiousness Sensitivity (Vision)

Communication Self-awareness Developing others (Vision)

Communication Motivation (Vision)

Situational competencies

Managing resources, empowering, critical analysis and judgement, strategic perspective, emotional resilience, influence, conscientiousness

Supporting competencies

Achieving, intuitiveness

Projects with intangible outcomes require an active, energetic and charismatic or transformational leader. These managers typically score high on vision, but should be careful in using too much of this competence. Too much vision can be a distraction from planned daily achievements. However, their accessible way of communicating with team members and engaging them by actively linking their personal objectives with those of the project makes these project managers best suitable for these projects.

Projects in the middle of the continuum require leaders who can balance the extremes. These leaders must be outgoing, accessible and engaging in their communication, but also stimulate individual team members’ willingness to perform through individual incentives, such as personal development, often in the form of learning about latest technologies or methods. Dealing with the extroverted requirements for a good communicator and the introverted desires of the team members, in the context of ever changing requirements in dynamic industries such as IT, requires a good control of their own feelings, thus a lot of self-awareness and ability to manage their own feelings.

A Leadership Competence Theory of Project Performance

Figure 6.1 shows our theory for reaching project performance through appropriate leadership.

Figure 6.1 Leadership competence based theory of project performance


The central component is the appropriate combination of the 15 leadership dimensions for a given project. An appropriate combination leads to optimal project performance.

The combination of the 15 dimensions into the appropriate set for effective leadership within the context of a given project is enabled through the leadership development and practice. This may involve training, experience, mentoring and so on. However, the best mix of leadership dimensions is situational and depends on the project type and the various peculiarities of a project (such as contract type, complexity, and so on).

Therefore, leadership competencies must be developed before we can use them, but the project type plus the situational circumstances of the project limit the choices of combinations of leadership dimensions that are successful in a given project. A successful project manager must therefore have a larger pool of competences than is required at any one time, of which he or she selects and combines those that are the right ones for his or her current project.

The outcome of the right combination of leadership styles, appropriately applied, is project performance. This performance, however, is a matter of perception. The perception of good performance is enabled through a match between the cultural values (such as importance of customer satisfaction, Chapter 4) and the perspective of the individual (such as the sponsor or user) towards the project. A mismatch can hinder the recognition of good performance. All of which supports the need to agree the success criteria and their measurement upfront (which we said is a necessary condition for project success).

There are a number of assumptions underlying this model. These include whether the organization is able to identify the project managers’ leadership profiles, the types of project the organization runs, and the existence of a target profile for a given type of project. However, we suggested that an organization should have a career structure for project managers, with defined competences at different levels to manage the types of projects it undertakes. Furthermore it assumes the existence of clearly defined success criteria and an understanding of how their values are interpreted in a given culture. This must be developed before the model can be used in practice.

The model reflects current understanding of the link between leadership and project performance. This understanding will, of course, further develop in the years to come.

The Way Forward

In this book we have challenged the two beliefs that project management is only about tools and techniques and can be applied universally by all project managers to all types of project. We showed that project managers and their leadership style are a critical success factor in projects. We identified an under-representation of leadership literature in project management and provided a summary of the leadership theories of the past 80 years. Then we looked into recent research and identified the particular leadership competences needed in different project types. Finally we developed a hierarchy of importance of competencies and a process theory for the application of these competencies.

What will the future bring us? Since 2006 we have seen a steady increase in research studies on leadership on projects, mainly from an emotional intelligence perspective. PMI has recently funded further research in this area, and project management researchers are joining the professional interest groups in emotional intelligence research, such as the Consortium for Research in Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, which is founded by Daniel Goleman and based in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. This group seeks to catalyze research on best practices for developing emotional competence, and the impact of emotional intelligence in leadership and organizations. The coming years will allow an understanding of leadership and the associated competencies at a more detailed level. This may be, for example, through the growing awareness of the functioning of the brain, which led recently to the identification of mirror-neurons. These neurons impact our social behaviour and the results of the research offer a partial explanation to many as yet misunderstood phenomena in human behaviour and their impact on leadership.

Training and development of leadership styles will become more productive and more diversified in organizations that take national cultural differences and organizational governance practices into account. A sensitive approach of this kind will provide for better economic and socially acceptable use of world resources. In this book we have shown how leadership can contribute to this aim.

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