Project leadership: skills, behaviours, knowledge and values

About the research

This research has sought to draw out project leadership competences from the perspective of practising project leaders, aspiring project leaders, heads of profession, project sponsors and clients. The aim of this research report is to help focus, develop and refine our understanding of project leadership so we can support continued capability building for project professionals and their organisations.

To compile this report, the authors Sarah Coleman and Professor Mike Bourne conducted in-depth interviews with 38 individuals across five multinational organisations (BAE Systems, IQVIA, Jacobs, Shell and Siemens). These organisations were chosen because of their reliance on complex projects for the delivery of strategy and performance, and the individuals for their substantial knowledge and experience of project delivery, and their range of perspectives. The interviewees held and had experience of a wide variety of roles, from the aspiring leaders delivering smaller projects to the most experienced project leaders (responsible for £1bn+ budget major, complex projects), heads of profession, project sponsors and clients. Together, these individuals have over 500 years of project experience.

Why is the research important?

One of the most important aspects of this research is that we chose to focus on project leadership from the perspective of the project leader, rather than from the perspective of the organisation. Our approach was to encourage interviewees to talk through their own ‘lived experience’ and personal perspective.  In doing so we have identified skills, behaviours, knowledge and values that project leaders believe they need in order to deliver major, complex projects successfully.

We wanted to identify, highlight and share those particular project leadership competences at a which when projects are becoming a strategic issue for organisations and for ‘mega projects’ commissioned by governments and other clients.  With projects representing high cost, becoming more complex and increasingly using extended supply chains and multi-geographical virtual teams, they also represent high risk. 

Intended audience

The research had a three-strand approach connecting academia, industry and project practitioners to ensure that the research reflected the project leadership challenges that industry is currently facing.

The report will be of interest to project leaders and members of the c-suite along with researchers and project professionals who have an interest in project leadership.  It will also be of interest to those professionals who are responsible for building project capability within delivery and client organisations. 

What did we discover

Based on our interviews we were able to conceptualise project leadership under the following five distinct headings:

  1. the leader understanding themselves, including their strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and touchpoints, and how their experience can help them work with their team to deliver the project;
  2. constructing the project organisation, from roles and responsibilities to the organisational culture, with the intent of enabling it to perform well and deliver outcomes and benefits;
  3. establishing, building and developing the project team with two intents:
  4. the delivery of the project
  5. the creation of project delivery capability for future projects;
  6. delivering the outcomes and benefits of the project by looking to the future, as opposed to managing the project schedule, resources and immediate deliverables; and
  7. understanding the wider context in which the project is to be delivered, and the nuances and pitfalls facing the team in the wider environment. It is often about guiding the project through difficult, complex and turbulent environments from a technical, emergent and sociopolitical perspective.

We have also developed eight themes or ‘project leadership survival skills’ based on the analysis of the interviews and our interpretation of the examples and stories provided by the interviewees. These form the basis for our competency framework for project leadership. 

Finally, we analysed 15 competency frameworks from organisations who volunteered to contribute theirs and which represented frameworks for project leadership competences, project management competences and general organisation leadership competences.

What were the main challenges?

One of the unique aspects of this research is that it has received input from industry throughout the process from informing the research proposal through providing participation, guidance and acting as an advisory group to ensure the final report best meets the needs of organisations facing project leadership challenges.

A particular challenge was keeping to the scope and original hypotheses of the research.  There was a wealth of discussion and follow-on questions amongst the research team during the preparation and undertaking of the research, and which we continued to revisit. 

Download the report  

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