project leadership

Project Leadership and its 6 Different Styles

February 3, 2016 by

Project Leadership Styles

This article examines the differences between project management and project leadership and identifies the different leadership styles, behavior, and approaches and identifies both the importance and impact of the different styles in the context of project management. So first of all, allow me to ask the question “What is Project Leadership”?

I did a search recently on for books using the keyword “leadership” and it returned 110,897 titles. You find many so-called “motivational posters” on leadership where it’s often depicted as a lighthouse shining brightly in the middle of a storm guiding ships to safety, but one of my preferred definitions is from Goffee and Jones (2012):


 “Effective leadership excites people to exceptional performance”.


Daniel Goleman (2000, p.78) wrote an excellent article listing the different leadership styles and compared them with the analogy of a set of golf clubs. As a golfer would select the correct club for the appropriate shot, a competent leader would apply a particular leadership style in a certain scenario. Goleman summarized that leaders who used styles that positively affected the climate has decidedly better results than those who did not and the different styles and their attributes are summarized in the table below.

Tannenbaum & Schmidt (1973, p.9) also referred to successful leaders knowing the importance of being both insightful and flexible by being able to accurately access “the most appropriate behavior at any given time and being able to behave accordingly”.

Leadership styles applied to project management


Leadership Styles applied to Project Management

As a project manager, I have experienced all leadership styles from other project managers depending on the situation. As Goleman stated, the key is to apply the correct style in the appropriate situation.

1. Coercive

This style would be rarely used by project managers and would be more apparent during crisis situations especially when a project deadline was looming and in danger of being missed. Although this style would have a negative impact, it’s important to understand the context where it could be required.


2. Authoritative

This style would be quite common but not overused by project managers in day-to-day operations. Arguably, more application of this style would deliver better results from project teams without causing adverse effects as this style generally has a positive impact in the organization. Goleman (2000, p.83) stated that “the authoritative leader is a visionary and motivates people by making clear to them how their work fits into this vision”, which would be valid for any project.


3. Affiliative

This is a very common management style used by project managers and may be overused where an authoritative style would be more appropriate, and again has a positive impact on the project team.


4. Democratic

This is a style that is frequently used by project managers and not just for smaller decisions on a day-to-day basis but also larger ones e.g. defining a project’s Scope Statement. An example of this is where each team member in a Project Management Office (PMO) contributes towards defining and measuring the objectives of the PMO. This style has a very a positive impact on the project team.


5. Pacesetting

This style would also be a common style for project managers, especially when a project is coming up to key milestones. Although this style generally has a negative impact on the project team, there are merits and contexts to when it could be applied with positive results. Kotter (2008, p.7) backs this up by stating that “creating urgency is a real asset in any organization facing a crisis situation”.


6. Coaching

This style of project management enables the encouragement of team members to develop their own capacity and capability as project contributors and again has a positive impact on the project team.



To summarize, project leadership is an evolution of successful project management and with an understanding of the different styles of leadership, coupled with the appropriate application of the different styles, project leadership can be developed by all project managers thereby ensuring continued project success.

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  1. Goffee, Rob, Jones, Gareth (2006). ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?’, Harvard Business Review.
  2. Goleman, Daniel (2000) ‘Leadership that gets results’, Harvard Business Review, 78.
  3. Tannenbaum, Robert & Schmidt, Warren H. (1973), ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern’, Harvard Business Review, 9.
  4. Kotter, John P. (2008) ‘A Sense of Urgency’, Harvard Business Press, pp. 7.



Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook

Peter Doyle

Project Management Consultant, BrightWork
Peter Doyle

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