project leadership

6 Project Management Leadership Styles

February 3, 2016 by

What is Project Management Leadership? 

This article examines project leadership and explains how six common leadership styles can impact your projects.  So first of all, allow me to ask the question “What is Project Leadership”?


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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”.


Project leadership is about creating the culture and working environment within the project that contributes to its success and performance. It is about decision making, judgment calls, and motivating the team with consistent communication.

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 have decidedly better results than those who did not.

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”.

The below table summarizes the six styles and their attributes.

Leadership styles applied to project management


6 Project Management Leadership Styles

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 Leadership

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.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Do what I tell you.”


2. Authoritative Leadership

Authoritative leaders inspire an entrepreneurial spirit and a vibrant enthusiasm for the mission. 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.

The authoritative style works best when the team needs a new vision because circumstances have changed, or when explicit guidance is not required.

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.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Come with me.”


3. Affiliative Leadership

This is a very common management style used by project managers and has a positive impact on the project team.

This leader works to create emotional bonds that bring a feeling of bonding and belonging to the organization.

The affiliative style works best in times of stress, when teammates need to heal from a trauma, or when the team needs to rebuild trust.

This style should not be used exclusively because a sole reliance on praise and nurturing can foster mediocre performance and a lack of direction.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “People come first.”


4. Democratic Leadership

This leader builds consensus through participation. 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.

The democratic style is most effective when the leader needs the team to buy into or have ownership of a decision, plan, or goal, or if he or she is uncertain and needs fresh ideas from qualified teammates.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “What do you think?”


5. Pacesetting Leadership

This leader expects and models excellence and self-direction.

The pacesetting style works best when the team is already motivated and skilled, and the leader needs quick results.

This style is common, 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”.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Do as I do, now.”


6. Coaching Leadership

This style of project management encourages team members to develop their own capacity and capability as project contributors, with a positive impact on the project team.

The coaching-style works best when the leader wants to help teammates build lasting personal strengths that make them more successful overall.

It is least effective when teammates are defiant and unwilling to change or learn, or if the leader lacks proficiency.

If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Try this.”




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.




Peter Doyle
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