Today, in the increasingly complex and ferociously competitive business environments, more people come to realise the role of leadership in project management. Project management in a business setting requires managers to organize the work of their team in the most efficient way possible while maintaining team members’ motivation high throughout the project’s life-cycle.
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The work of the project manager is made more difficult by strict deadlines and the fact that many companies have multi-national teams with people from different parts of the globe working on a single project. The role of the project manager is not only to manage the team working on the project, but to foster relationships which will increase workers’ performance, and inspire workers to overcome individual differences to achieve a common objective.
In the light of such challenges, leadership style and team building are vital to the project’s success. Various styles of leadership exist, and several approaches to leadership have been proposed by scholars over the years. In this paper, the role of leadership in project management is discussed.
The theoretical framework for this paper includes various books and scholarly papers on the role and function of leadership and leadership theory. Types of leaders and the relationship between leader and team and project are discussed in theoretical terms and informed by literature review. The objective of this paper is to gain a better understanding of the relationship between project management, leadership, and skills.
The Definition, Components, and Functions of Leadership
Over the years, many definitions of leadership have been proposed. The main component inherent to many of the conceptualisations of leadership is organizing the work of people to achieve a certain goal (Northouse 2015, p. 16). Gardner (1990) proposed the following definition of leadership: “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual […] induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” (p. 1). As such, leadership is often recognized as behaviour which guides people towards achieving a common objective or goal.
The following components of leadership have been singled out:
- it is a process;
- it includes influence;
- it occurs in groups of people;
- it suggests a common objective or goal (Northouse 2015, p. 6).
Since leadership is a process, it can be viewed as a transactional event which is the result of the leader’s behaviour. Process component suggests that leadership is a series of interactions which occur between a leader and their followers. Influence implies that the leader affects their followers in a specific way. The leader has a certain authority over his followers and either inspire them or establishes a system of rewards and punishments which motivates team members.
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As it was mentioned before, leadership is about organizing a group of people working towards a common objective or goal, and as such, leadership can only occur in groups. If the leader has no people following them, they are not leaders. A common objective or goal is what leaders direct their followers’ energy and attention to. A target goal shared by the leader and their followers is the main component of leadership. In a business setting, a common goal or objective may be, for example, delivering a project in the designated amount of time. A common objective or goal implies that the leader and their followers share the same goal.
The main functions of leadership are establishing direction, aligning people and motivating and inspiring them (Northouse 2015, p. 14). To achieve a common objective, this objective has to be visualized by the leader and clarified to their followers. The leader is responsible for the plan or strategy which will allow their team to achieve the objective, which is what establishing direction stands for. Aligning people requires the leader to build relationships with team members, communicate goals and align their work to foster collaboration.
The leader is responsible for dedicating tasks and coordinating the work of different team members or departments to get the results required. Organizing is essential to make people collaborate on a common goal, and it is particularly true in a complex business setting, where several people in different departments or different locations may be working together on a single project. Motivating and inspiring people imply the role of the leader as the source of energy and inspiration for the team members. The leader is in a position to motivate team members, empower them to collaborate and perform at their best.
Leadership vs. Management
The concepts of management and leadership are close in their meaning and function and are sometimes used interchangeably. Both leadership and management imply working with groups of people towards a common goal. Both leadership and management have the same functions of organizing and maintaining order. However, most scholars recognise leadership and management as two different concepts (Northouse 2015, p. 14).
Whereas leadership emphasizes the influence of a leader when organising the work of a group of people towards a certain objective, management emphasizes the activities involved in the organization of people. To lead people means to create and communicate a vision of the future and motivate people towards that vision, while to manage is to control people and refine routines. The definition of leadership is inducing people to work towards a common goal, while management is a more general term which can be defined as “a social and technical process which utilizes resources, influences, human action and facilitates changes to accomplish organizational goals” (Pathak 2015, p. 4).
The functions of leadership and management are also somewhat different. While management is concerned with order and consistency, leadership is concerned with a directed movement and change (Northouse 2015, p. 14). In other words, the main function of management is establishing and maintaining order to improve operational performance. The main function of leadership is to unite people and lead them towards a common objective or goal.
A study done by Simonet and Tett in 2012 sought to find the common and different in the concepts frequently associated with leadership and management. Many of notions are mentioned in both contexts, for instance, goal setting, while there are some unique notions associated with the concept of leadership. These include creative thinking, intrinsic motivation and others (Somonet & Tett 2012, p. 199).
Qualities of a Leader
Traits are people’s characteristics which define their behaviour (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991, p. 48). Scholars have long argued what makes an individual an exceptional leader. There are certain well-recognised traits of character which define leadership. Trait theories, which were created in the middle of the 20th centuries, sought to define those characteristics which are typically found in leaders (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991, p. 48). Six traits which are unique to leaders are:
- desire to lead;
- cognitive ability;
- relevant experience (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991, p. 49).
Drive implies a high effort level and stamina which is required to align and motivate people to achieve a common goal. The leader is the source of energy and the force that drives a project forward. The drive is required to make people engaged in the work they do and maintain that engagement until the project is finished.
The desire to influence and lead is what motivates leaders to do their work. While leaders have to motivate others to do what is needed, they also have to be motivated to share this motivation with others. Leaders are often driven by their inner passion to influence others to achieve what is required.
Leadership comes with ethical burdens which require leaders to assume moral commitments. Leaders have to have a high level of integrity since it is essential for their role. Integrity or honesty is what allows leaders to gain the support of their followers. In the business context, integrity suggests avoiding unethical business practices concerning both customers and employees.
Self-confidence allows leaders to build their authoritative voice and organize the work of other people more effectively. Without self-confidence, the leader will not be able to establish control and influence other people.
Knowledge of the business or relevant experience is required to show the leader’s superiority and assist them in the decision-making process.
Trait theory has attracted the attention of researchers who wanted to examine whether leadership is connected with certain traits. Recent research proves that leaders are, in fact, somewhat different from other people (Germain 2012, p. 32). Leaders are often described as authoritative, passionate, charismatic, and have a certain vision of how things should be done (Germain 2012, p. 33). These qualities are connected with their primary role, which is to manage people and inspire them to achieve a common goal or objective. Previous studies have proved that dominance is quite often associated with leadership (Germain 2012, p. 33). This trait is also associated with the function of leadership. Leaders have to be able to exercise power over their followers and have an authoritative voice to succeed.
Classification of Leaders and Styles of Leadership
There are several approaches to the classification of leaders outlined in leadership theories: the behavioural approach, the leadership styles approach, and others. Behavioural approach segments leaders into transformational and transactional leaders and includes a separate situational leadership theory (McCleskey 2014, p. 117).
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Some of the famous politicians and business executives are described as transformational leaders. Transformational leaders are agents of change and use their creative abilities to create a vision of the future and inspire their followers to achieve extraordinary goals. In the last several decades, transformational leadership has been the focus of many studies and debates (McCleskey 2014, p. 120).
Transformational leaders have been recognized as the most successful in the top and middle management positions, the empirical support suggests that transformational leadership increases the effectiveness of workers (McCleskey 2014, p. 120). The four components of transformational leadership are “idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration” (McCleskey 2014, p. 120).
A great example of an exceptional transformational leader is the former CEO of Apple, Inc., Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was known for his creative abilities and is often described as a visionary, or someone who had a certain vision for his company, and managed to articulate it in such a way that it inspired his followers and ultimately helped him achieve his goals. Steve Jobs expected high performance from his employees by transforming work into a vision of the future and stimulating people to do their best.
Unlike transformational leaders, transactional leaders do not want a radical change and do not use their vision of the future as the main motivational point. Rather, transactional leaders focus on current performance and aim to enhance it by utilising a system of rewards and punishments. As such, the focus of transactional leaders is on motivation with extrinsic rewards and maintaining the current organizational system in place (McCleskey 2014, p. 121). Since no radical change is sought by transactional leaders, they avoid risks and helps reduce work anxiety related to change (McCleskey 2014, p. 121).
A notable example of a transactional leader was the former president of France, Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle managed to establish order through a chain of command and helped stabilise the political situation during the 1958 crisis by applying a system of rewards and punishments. Although transactional leaders do not inspire radical changes, sometimes, it is not necessary. In certain situations, such as emergency or crises, the focus of transactional leaders on an organisation and group performance is more valuable.
Another approach to leadership classification is called situational leadership, which has been classified as both behavioural and contingency theory (McCleskey 2014, p. 118). This style of leadership emphasises the need for the leader’s situational awareness and their ability to act according to the situation (McCleskey 2014, p. 118). As such, situational leadership considers people’s behaviour concerning the tasks or leader’s followers. At the same time, this theory also fits into other contingency-based theories (McCleskey 2014, p. 118).
Another approach to the classification of leaders is called the leadership styles approach. This approach was proposed by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s (Lewin’s leadership styles n.d.). He described three different leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.
Autocratic leadership describes the approach executed by those leaders who do not consult with their team members and rely on their judgement alone when making decisions. Team members have no choice but to follow the strategy presented by their leader as is. Since autocratic leaders do not accept the input from their followers, such leadership is damaging to the employee’s morale and is applicable only in those cases where due to certain circumstances immediate action is required. However, in those circumstances, autocratic leaders might be able to quickly resolve the confusion by making final decisions single-handedly.
Democratic leaders are in a position to make the final decision; however, this decision is not based on the leader expertise alone. Democratic leaders consider the input of their team members when making a final decision. Team members are, therefore, sharing their knowledge and expertise to assist their leader in the decision-making process.
Democratic leadership encourages the active participation of the team in the decision-making process and provides team members with a certain level of autonomy. Studies show that those leaders who adopt a democratic or participative leadership style are more successful in their role than other leaders (Ogbonna & Harris, 2000, p. 767).
The autonomy of individual team members is even greater when the laissez-faire style of leadership is exercised. Laissez-faire leaders supply their followers with guidance and information only when requested and largely do not get involved in their work process. As such, this style of leadership implies very low levels of the leader’s control and guidance.
Although such level of individual team member’s autonomy results in high job satisfaction, it also requires team members to be competent at time management and setting deadlines to achieve their designated goals. If team members do not have the skills or expertise to manage themselves, laissez-faire leadership is likely to result in missed deadlines and/or objectives.
In the context of project management, depending on the circumstances, different styles of leadership can be successful. If swift action is required, there might be no time for the project manager to listen to the opinion of every team member. In such cases, the authoritative style might be more appropriate. Laissez-faire leadership can be beneficial for those teams which are highly autonomous and have the skills and knowledge to self-direct their efforts. In the majority of cases, however, participative or democratic leaders are most likely to achieve success.
While performing their function of organizing and controlling, they also accept the input from the team and make every person on that team feel valued. Also, the leader cannot be the expert in every field, and the expertise of team members might allow the leader to make a more thoughtful decision. “The level of maturity (both job and psychological maturity) of followers determines the correct leadership style and relates to previous education and training interventions” (McCleskey 2014, p. 118).
Leadership in Team Building and Project Management
Team building is a term which describes the alignment of workers into a team of people working together on a single project or goal. Team building is closely tied with leadership and project management.
The main functions of leadership are establishing direction, aligning people and motivating and inspiring them (Northouse 2015, p. 14). While working on a project in a business environment, leaders exercise team-building strategies to ensure cooperation between team members and make them work as a single unit devoted to the achievement of the established goal or objective. Project management requires leaders to understand the outcome of different organizational and personal relationships and minimize tensions that might exist among team members.
Project management implies establishing a plan and coordinating team members’ actions to ensure a smooth workflow and allow the project to be fully finished on time. At the same time, leaders have to establish a culture which encourages active participation and respects the views and values of different team members. Therefore, team building is essential in project management and is closely tied with the concept of leadership.
Team members need the following five things from their leader: expectation, opportunity, feedback, guidance and reward (Verma & Wideman, 2002, p. 5). Delivering on these requirements requires a high level of intercommunication between a leader and the members of the team. Such intercommunication allows the project manager to deliver on the expectations team members have, provide them with the opportunity for growth and self-expression, offer guidance and feedback to improve the performance of the team, and establish a reward to incentivize their work. The interaction between the leader and the team, therefore, largely determines the success of the project.
The focus of the leader is on the management of project activities while interacting with team members in such a way as to improve its performance. Throughout the interaction between the leader and the team, their communication goes through the following four stages: “forming, storming, norming and performing” (Verma & Wideman, 2002, p. 7). The leader’s communication with the team should be adaptive and correspond to the development of the four stages:
- The forming stage is the initial stage where communication is still limited, and conflicts do not present themselves. Team members only get acquainted with each other and the project. The function of the leader here is to communicate his vision of the project and facilitate interaction between the leader and the team and between individual team members.
- The storming stage is the second stage which requires the leader to establish direction and assist the team to move the project further. The function of the leader is to encourage cooperation and realise their directing skills.
- Norming stage is the third stage when the cooperation being established and the focus is on various issues associated with the project. The function of a leader is to establish smooth operations, policies, and procedures, and offer feedback and guidance on solving various project-related issues.
- Performing is the final stage where the team is focused on delivering the project, and a significant level of cooperation is achieved which enables self-direction. The function of a leader is to maintain a high level of engagement among team members during this final stage.
The focus of leaders while managing a project is on getting the required results. Therefore, leadership plays a pivotal role in the success of the project. It is highly unlikely that a diverse team with no leader is sight will be able to set objectives, resolve arising issues, overcome personal conflicts, maintain a high level of engagement, and finish the project in the dedicated amount of time all by themselves. Even the laissez-faire style of leadership implies some limited input from the leader who provides feedback and guidance. Other styles of leadership dedicate a large part of the responsibility to the leader.
The leader is the main driving force behind a project, and their commitment, enthusiasm, ability to communicate their vision of how things should be done all define the outcome of the project. It was already mentioned that management, in general, is largely concerned with administrative issues, such as setting objectives, maintaining order, establishing a certain system of rewards to motivate the employees and monitoring operations performance. While project managers do that, their main function is to lead team members in such a direction which will allow them to achieve results in the most efficient way possible in the designated amount of time. Without the leader’s input, there is no project, and without leadership, team members have no one to follow to the end goal. While efficient management can, no doubt, improve the flow of the project, successful leadership is what defines the direction of the flow and helps the team get the results required.
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