Project Leadership: It’s Mental

As the project management field develops and matures, it is becoming clearer that project management requires project leadership to succeed. Project leadership goes beyond project management in significant ways. A good quote to sum this view comes from Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper “you manage things; you lead people.” Project management is not merely the management of things (budgets, scope, artefacts, risks, assumptions, issues, dependencies, constraints etc). Once people are involved (team members, stakeholders) it’s mental.

The project manager’s job immediately becomes more of a mental thing – getting into people’s heads to figure out what motivates them, how to celebrate wins, bounce back from failures and setbacks and so forth.

One of the seminal research findings on leadership styles dates back to 1939. Kurt Lewin led a group of researchers, and published their findings in the Journal of Social Psychology (see reference below). Lewin is widely considered to be the ‘father’ of modern social psychology. One of his most famous quotes is “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” In this study by Lewin, Lippit and White, schoolchildren were grouped into one of three ‘leadership style’ groups: authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire. Main finding was that the democratic leadership style is superior to the authoritarian and laissez-faire styles.

Reference: Lewin, K., Lippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301

According to Cambridge University Psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett, as early as 1926, there are three types of leaders in social groups (eg industrial organisations): institutional, dominant and persuasive. The institutional leader is mostly found in institutions with well-established norms and rules, e.g., the Armed Forces and Religious organisations. Rather than focus on the leader as a person, the focus is on the cause the group is advocating, and maintaining the status quo.

With a dominant leader, you will typically find these in groups where there is a lot of in-fighting between the groups, e.g., divisive behaviour prone to creating factions among ethnically diverse people in a country (liken to Lewin’s authoritarian style leader). Dictators prosper in such environments. I would hope that your organisation is nothing like this!

In an organisation where there is much bargaining to be done (aka cajoling) and people often have strong, differing views, Bartlett suggests that the persuasive leader would be the best fit. “Probably the normal industrial organisation of the modern world tends to favour the rise to power of the persuasive type.”

Once again we see that the persuasive leader is the most effective style of the three, within a business environment.

Describing the dominant leader, Bartlett says “plenty of people who are constantly making strenuous efforts to assert themselves are by no means successful leaders, and probably no successful leadership was ever based on this alone.” He likens this to military leadership.

Regarding the persuasive leader, as Bartlett eloquently puts it, “the persuasive type of leader is, in many respects, psychologically the most interesting of all. [They are], as a rule, very much the most complex and subtle character.” “This is the leader who has an extraordinary capacity for knowing what people are thinking about, or feeling, or doing, and for divining what they are going to think, feel, or do next. [Their] power in this respect is based, I think, upon a very high degree of suggestibility, upon a capacity to react to hints which are not yet formulated, and which more ordinary people fail to respond to altogether.” Bartlett continues, “we speak of the persuasive leader as “understanding” [people]. [They] announce a policy, and everybody thinks “Oh yes, that was exactly what we wanted all the time, only nobody else was clever enough to say so.” [They have], as a rule, a great capacity for formulation, and delight in making speeches. [Their] group may provide [them] with ideas, but [they] find the words, and then everybody thinks that [they have] also discovered the ideas. [They] need not be the active, emotional type, but [they are] the alert, intellectual type.”

“The institutional leader must remain aloof; the dominant leader may remain aloof; the persuasive leader dare not remain aloof.” The persuasive leader’s “chief method of dealing with all social problems is by compromise.”
In concluding, Bartlett reminds us that types are not individuals, and that few leaders fit entirely into one of the three types. While one of the three types may be the more prevalent in a particular leader, it is more common to find a blend of types in leaders.

Cited from Bartlett, F.C. (1926). ‘The social psychology of leadership’, Journal of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology 3: 18 8-193.

By Dayo Sowunmi

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