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Title: Leadership in project teams

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Executive summary

This report examines the subject of leadership in the context of project teams. The objective is to outline the need for leadership skills that are adapted to the operations of teams working in different projects. To achieve this goal, the report comprises of the three sections. The first section examines the role of a project leader, which revolve on external and internal facilitation. In external facilitation, focus is on negotiation and liaison with clients, the host organization, top management, the public, and other stakeholders. In internal facilitation, the leader is expected to engage with project teams in  planning, solving problems, allocating resources, solving problems, and providing strategic direction with a view to attain all project goals within set timelines.

The second section investigates the complexities of leading project teams at different stages of a project life cycle. The three stages examined include initiation, execution, and closing stages. The report found out that a leader must adapt his leadership behavior and demeanor in response to the unique challenges that arise in each of these stages. Lastly, the report provides a reflective section on the implications of this analysis for project leadership theory. The situational leadership theory was found to be the most suitable ideal theoretical framework for use in analyzing the need to adapt leadership skills depending on project type, needs of team members, and stage of project implementation.



Executive summary. 2

Introduction. 3

The role of a project leader 4

External facilitation: Linking the project to the organization and the public. 4

Internal facilitation: Leading project teams in planning, problem-solving, and execution. 7

Leading teams during project life cycle. 8

Initiation stage. 9

Execution stage. 10

Closing stage. 11

Implications for project leadership theory. 11

Conclusion. 12

References. 13



Project teams constitute a very critical component of any contemporary business organization. It is common for a business to engage in projects every now and then and to enlist the participation of specialized project teams. Therefore, a project manager must be ready to contend with a wide range of leadership issues arising from the activities of these teams in order to succeed in attaining the goals outlined in the project.

Although leading project teams is a very challenging undertaking, it can be easily accomplished by simply maintaining strategic focus. This strategy must be conceived with the expectations of all participants and stakeholders in mind. Failure to understand role expectations on the part of a project leader may cause friction thereby leading to project failure. At the same time, the leadership provided to these teams must be based on an in-depth understanding of the entire life of the project. Towards this end, it may be necessary for different project teams to be led in different ways depending on the peculiarity of the tasks that they are handling as well as their position within the project life cycle.

The aim of this report is to investigate three areas of relevance to leaders’ attempts to achieve excellence in inspiring and providing strategic direction to project teams. The first section examines the role of a project leader. The second section explores the position of a project leader in the context of the project life cycle. The last section examines aspects of project execution in terms of the project leader’s ability to address the needs of individual members of the project team.

The role of a project leader

External facilitation: Linking the project to the organization and the public

Leadership can easily determine success or failure of a project. Leading project teams is a very difficult undertaking. The project leader must confront situations where different expectations of his abilities are being expressed openly. This leaves the project leader with a lot of explaining to do regarding what his actual duties and responsibilities are. Such clarification, if provided in the right way, may go a long way in improving overall project outcomes. At the same time, the project leader must create harmony not just within project teams but also between them and other departments and functions of the organization. This demonstrates how critical the leadership role can be not just for project teams but also for the entire organization.

To understand the role of project leaders, it may be necessary for one to examine studies that have focused on leaders operating at the supervisory level as well as those operating at higher levels (Thamhain, 2004; Webber, 2002; Edmondson, 2003). According to DeRue & Ashford (2010), internal stakeholders tend to hold different expectations from external stakeholders regarding the role of leadership in project teams. External stakeholders expect these leaders to be the spokespersons for their respective projects (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Other roles identified by internal stakeholders include monitoring, negotiation, and overall project control. On the other hand, internal stakeholders expect these leaders to be planners and allocators of resources (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). They also expect these leaders to coordinate activities, solve problems, and provide overall team leadership.

As the spokesperson of the project teams, leaders have a responsibility to act as representatives of their projects at various public functions. To this extent, the expectation is for them to conduct themselves in a manner that will portray the entire project team in positive light. If the leader exhibits undesirable behavior, this may reflect negatively on everyone participating in the project. In some cases, the leader may be called upon to formal reports and highlights of the project in terms of goals,  progress made, timelines, challenges, risks, and opportunities. Leaders who do not bother to gather up-to-date information are unlikely to come out as efficient representatives of their respective teams.

The task of liaising with different project stakeholders should also be taken seriously by leaders of project teams. Liaison entails establishing a link between a project and different business dimensions as per the needs and expectations of different stakeholders. The ability to liaise and monitor project teams is a crucial skill for any leader as part of efforts to enhance team building and performance. Moreover, participants who work in teams being led by people who possess such skills are likely to learn new things relating to industry best practices and cost performance (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002).

During the liaison process, the leader must look at both form and informal aspects. Formal aspects manifest themselves in the process of engaging with different stakeholders including clients, management, and the public. Informal engagements occur whenever these leaders engage in social interactions with some or all of the stakeholders. Naturally, priority is on those stakeholders with whom the leader of a project team shares closer ties. Some leaders may be reluctant to pursue the informal dimension not just because of a lack of self-confidence but also because it may be very time-consuming. According to Edmondson (2003), informal sessions may serve as more appropriate platforms for addressing stakeholder concerns, opportunities, and challenges more effectively. This is particularly the case where a leader has to handle interdisciplinary or virtual project teams (Beranek, Broder & Reinig, 2005).

As a negotiator, the leader of a project team must be capable of communicating both the needs and benefits of the project using terms that stress on the centrality of stakeholder interests (Webber, 2002). Using their ties in larger project networks, leaders are also expected to assist team members to address problems encountered both within and outside team contexts. To this extent, cross-functional teams may be very useful not just for project participants but also for the entire organization. These teams go a long way in enhancing organizational effectiveness. Although cross-functional teams have their share of challenges, project leaders should not shy away from relying on the insights that they provide (Webber, 2002). For instance, they can easily be relied on to create a climate of trust among team members (Webber, 2002).  This way, it is easy to understand why leadership actions are critical for the success of cross-functional teams.

It is understandable that stakeholders tend to turn to project leaders in information and regular updates on the implementation process and prospects of success. Visionary project leaders take advantage of such opportunities to act as negotiators for their respective teams. This creates an ideal environment for project parameters such as costs, scope, and schedule to be discussed. In this undertaking, the core objective of the leader is to ensure that the project becomes a success. Towards this end, the leader must understand what it means for the project to be a success and match it realistically with what is required for the project to be successful.

It is also the responsibility of the leader to respond to scope creep. Scope creep is the phenomenon whereby stakeholders request for the inclusion of more products or for additional project changes during the project execution process in accordance with their needs. Failure by a project leader to adapt to these changes is likely to lead to project failure. In many cases, the leader must request for additional time and resources to be able to incorporate the new changes. The ability to negotiate with stakeholders for the allocation of such resources is a crucial attribute for a successful leader.

Internal facilitation: Leading project teams in planning, problem-solving, and execution

A project leader is not just a representative of the project to the organization and the public; he is also an internal facilitator. He has the responsibility to lead project teams in solving problems, planning, and executing the project. Successful project leaders also tend to excel in issues to do with resource allocation. They also coordinate activities to create harmony among project members. They act as team leaders throughout the execution process. In this capacity, they manage expectations and resolve conflicts. Moreover, wise team leaders are always keen to address socio-psychological problems relating to interactions among team members before they grow into a full-blown crisis.

Much of what a team leader does in terms of internal facilitation has a lot to do with planning. Proper planning greatly influences coordination team performance. The overall objective should be to enhance commitment, cooperation, risk management, and ultimately improve overall team performance (Thamhain, 2004). In complex work environments, the team leader should put into consideration expectations, perceptions, and professional abilities of all team members. Although it is impossible for the leader to anticipate everything during the planning stage, the best-laid plans are those that can be altered midstream to accommodate new knowledge without jeopardizing overall team performance.

Coordination is also a critical internal role for a leader during project execution. In this case, it is imperative for the leader to ensure that all activities being undertaken at any given time contribute in one way or the other to overall project aims. According to Hobday (2000), most leaders aspire to reach a point where a steady state is reached since at this point standard operating procedures can be used to achieve the goal of coordination. In spite of efforts by leaders, it is extremely rare for steady environments in project settings to be reached (Day, Gronn & Salas, 2004). Day, Gronn & Salas (2004) argue that a lot of real-time work must be undertaken as part of the coordination process. This essentially means that leaders need to hold regular meetings with team members with a view to review progress.

During these meetings, it is normal for the project team to be confronted with numerous problems. These problems often turn out to be challenging because every project is always a unique endeavor with a unique set of challenges. It is impossible to find two projects that share similarities in terms of the circumstances of execution. Although two projects may share the same goals and execution procedures, the circumstances within which they are implemented will always be different in one way or the other. In light of this awareness, project leaders, because of the very nature of their overall responsibilities, are always faced with an uphill task of empowering their teams to enable them solve problems whenever they arise.

Many people feel embarrassed by recurring problems, and some may even go to the extent of hiding or ignoring them. However, a project leader must be different in terms of the way he reacts whenever problems recur. This should involve empowering the project team, raise awareness about the existence of problems, and suggest solutions to these problems. The leaders should also be ready to consent to the solutions proposed by team members if they are viable. The consent of team leaders is critical because these leaders are better informed about the effects of both the problem and the proposed solution.

Leading teams during project life cycle

The ideal leader is one who changes his leadership behavior in responding to changing needs at every stage of the project life cycle. The behaviors required at the initiation and planning stage differ remarkably with those require at the execution stage. Furthermore, the team leader must make all the necessary behavioral adjustments as the project nears the completion stage. During execution, many changes are expected to occur in terms of the expectations and needs of both internal team members and external stakeholders. At the closing stage, every leader must address all the concerns expressed by clients, the project team, and the host organization. The need for the leader to adjust his demeanor in response to the changing circumstances becomes more evident in projects that take a longer time to complete. Although these distinctions may become blurred in shorter projects, nothing much changes in terms of leadership needs.

Initiation stage

During initiation stage, the leader must be very busy trying to ascertain that everything is in its rightful place and that the project may commence. This entails a very detail assessment of the project checklist to check all deliverables. This entails clarifying issues relating to costs, scope, and schedules with clients, host organization, and top management. This step is critical in terms of ensuring that everyone is in support of the work that is about to commence.

Without the support of project team members, it may be extremely difficult for the leader to clarify things to clients, most of whom may have a vague impression of what they actually want to deal with their problems. Team members are best suited to provide such answers by virtue of their firm grounding in different technical aspects. Once expectations have been managed and project parameters clarified, the project may begin without any delays.

Evidently, the initiation stage compels the team leader to widen his perspective and outlook regarding the way all activities relating to the project must be organized. As the project execution process commences, the need to go down to the actual activities of individual team members becomes more apparent. At the same time, different phases under which the work should be sub-divided often become evident. Meanwhile, it is always better if the leader possesses the requisite skills for mapping out these sub-divisions whenever they turn out to be unrecognizable.

As more details become necessary for implementation to be success and the workload becomes heavier, leaders must learn to involve team members more in handling specific tasks deliverables. At this level, the members should be inducted into a routine that is ultimately reconstituted into standard operating procedures that make up the foundation of the execution stage. Once the project resources have been allocated and aligned to all routine tasks, everybody in the team should be ready to move into the execution stage. By this time, two goals will have been attained. First, the leader will have succeeded in shaping the project in such a way that it is best suited for all teams. Secondly, both and the team members will have developed a comprehensive understanding of the entire project in terms of direction, expectations, control mechanisms, standard operating procedures, supervisory requirements, and objectives.

Execution stage

Leaders of project teams must change tact once project execution commences primarily because of the need to delegate tasks and provide inspiration. The risk of the project going off track is normally because clients may come up with new demands, resource constraints may occur, and the host organization may not be as cooperative as earlier promised. Leaders who fail to deal with these challenges may fail to meet the overall objectives of their projects. Therefore, even as they delegate tasks, they must closely monitor and control all activities. This exposes them to the risk of being perceived to be micro-managing individual team members.

Different leaders use different approaches to monitor project teams. Everything adds up to differences in leadership styles. Nevertheless, some basic rules of engagement may help all leaders avoid trouble with disgruntled team members. For instance, every leader must keenly assess the extent to which his efforts to monitor and control progress is getting in the way of employee development and good team performance. This essentially means that too close supervision should be avoided. On the other hand, too little supervision may mean that the project might soon go off track, thereby making it impossible for timely completion.

Closing stage

Once the objectives of the project have been realized, it is the responsibility of the leader to indicate to members that the ongoing work is nearing completion. As part of external facilitation, critical stakeholders must also be briefed in readiness for final project delivery. The leader must change his behavioral demeanor to inspire and/or reflect the hectic working environment that emerges as everyone rushes to finalize all contract requirements. The leader must be able to keep an eye on every detail while endeavoring to ensure that all items in the checklist have been ticked.

A major pitfall that must be avoided is the tendency to neglect administrative aspects. For instance, all reports should be produced on time. At the same time, project leaders are normally called upon to give presentations on the work done, challenges encountered, deadlines missed, resources utilized, and goals attained. Final remarks by the leader also help create a realistic image of the lessons learnt, future prospects, and important milestones reached. In many cases, the content of such remarks go a long way in bringing out the unique leadership abilities of a project leader.

Implications for project leadership theory

The implications for theory in the context of leadership in project teams derive largely from the inherent nature of projects. All projects are undertaken in  a cyclic fashion, meaning that leaders have to keep moving from one stage of implementation to the other. Different phases or situations call for different leadership styles. According to Thompson & Vecchio (2009), this phenomenon is best explained using situational leadership theory. This theory explains the need to adapt the leadership style to the current situation as well as the people being led (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). It requires leaders to adjust the level of emphasis that they direct on the task as well as relationships with people being led depending on what needs to be done for the task to be accomplished successfully (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009).

On the basis of the situational leadership theory, the three different leadership styles that a leader working with project teams may consider using including participative leadership, directive leadership, and delegative leadership (Thompson & Vecchio, 2009). These leadership styles may provide such a leader with a repository of tools of behavioral change for use at different stages of project implementation. Based on the situational leadership theory, the choice of leadership style for a team leader should vary depending on the project team, needs of the project, and its stakeholders.


Leadership is a very complex responsibility especially in the context of project teams. This paper has demonstrated that the best way to understanding its dynamics is by considering the various leadership demands that arise at different stages of project implementation. It has also found out that project leaders must always act as both internal and external facilitators. As internal facilitators, they must provide leadership to all team members, monitor projects, oversee proper utilization of resources, and ensure that timelines are adhered to in the pursuit of project goals. As external facilitators, the project leader must negotiate and interact regularly with clients, host organizations, the public, and other stakeholders. Finally, this paper has identified situational leadership theory as an ideal theoretical framework for analyzing and resolving leadership problems affecting project teams at different stages of project implementation.



Ammeter, A. & Dukerich, J. (2002). Leadership, team building, and team member characteristics in high performance project teams. Engineering Management Journal, 14(4), 3-11.

Beranek, P. Broder, J. & Reinig, B. (2005). Management of virtual project teams: Guidelines for team leaders. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 16(4), 247-259.

Day, D., Gronn, P. & Salas, E. (2004), Leadership capacity in teams. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(6), 857–880.

DeRue, D. & Ashford, S. (2010). Who will Lead and Who will Follow? A Social Process of Leadership Identity Construction in Organizations. Academy of Management Review, 35(4), 627-647.

Edmondson, A. (2003). Speaking Up in the Operating Room: How Team Leaders Promote Learning in Interdisciplinary Action Teams. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1419–1452.

Hobday, M. (2000), The project-based organization: An ideal form for managing complex products and systems? Research Policy, 29(7), 871–893.

Thamhain, H. (2004). Linkages of project environment to performance: Lessons for team leadership. International Journal of Project Management, 22(7), 533–544.

Thompson, G. & Vecchio, R. (2009). Situational leadership theory: A test of three versions. Leadership Quarterly, 20(5), 837-852.

Webber, S. (2002). Leadership and trust facilitating cross-functional team success. Journal of Management Development, 21(3), 201 – 214.

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