Studying Leadership (for project managers)

Twice during the last week, I’ve had the subject of leadership come up in conversations with project managers, and today I read a post by a respected project management blogger that made the assertion, “Leadership can’t be taught.”  Of course it can – it’s been taught for centuries.  If you’re serious about pursuing a career where you have to influence others with only limited authority, you need to study leadership.

Classic texts such as Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” have gained a whole new level of popularity in the west in the last few years, and the Chinese are starting to re-discover the teachings of Confucius, which were the basis for the Imperial examination system for government officers for over two thousand years.  The Instruction of Ptahhotep, a vizier under King Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty, to his son is a collection of maxims dealing with human relations, touching on the leadership virtues of kindness, justice, truthfulness, moderation and self-control.  More recently, humanistic approaches to leadership have been studied by both academics and practitioners, from the military to the clergy.

Much of what we talk about in business leadership involves leadership style.  Three well established approaches to leadership style include laissez faire, which implies low control, the autocratic style, which implies high control, and the participative style, which lies somewhere in between, and is frequently most effective when used with a highly skilled and motivated team.  Of course, people being people, they tend to exhibit a more or less constant style of leadership over time.  In the 1950s, a group of management theorists from Ohio State University and the University of Michigan published a series of studies to determine whether leaders should be more task-oriented or relationship-oriented.  Their research discovered that there is no one best style: leaders must adjust their leadership style to the situation as well as to the people being led.  Thus began the development of Situational Leadership.

Daniel Goleman’s model of situational leadership is a relatively recent view that based on the application of emotional intelligence to leadership. His article in the Harvard Business Review, “Leadership That Gets Results,” argues that effective bosses vary their leadership style based on the situations at hand.  Goleman describes six styles a leader can use:

  • Coercive – the leader wants the follower to “do as I tell you,” which can be useful in a crisis but is generally the least effective of the six.
  • Pacesetting – the leader wants the follower to “do as I do,” focusing on doing things better and faster.  This is the second least effective style, but can be useful in combination with other styles.
  • Coaching – the leader offers feedback and challenging assignments; the task is a learning opportunity.
  • Democratic – the leader works to build trust and commitment by soliciting ideas and buy-in.  Good for morale and productivity in the long term, but requires extra time.
  • Affinitive – the leader tends to his employee’s emotional concerns, offers ample praise, and gives followers great freedom in doing their jobs.  Produces fierce loyalty and trust, but best used in combination with authoritative style, as commonly practiced by the military.
  • Authoritative – the leader states a clear vision and motivates followers by making clear to them how their work contributes to that vision.  Not “authoritarian,” which is associated with long-term use of Coercive behaviors.

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard argue in their book, “Leadership and the One Minute Manager,” that leaders should adapt their style to how ready and willing the follower is to perform required tasks, based on their competence and motivation.  They describe four approaches:

  • A “Telling,” or directive approach for those followers with low competence and low commitment
  • A “Selling,” or coaching approach for followers with some competence and variable commitment
  • A “Participating,” or supporting approach for followers with high competence and variable commitment
  • A “Delegating,” or observing approach for followers with high competence and high commitment.

I’ve added a section to the Bookstore for leadership books – if you think I should add one of your favorites, let me know in the comments.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.