5 Project Management Leadership Styles (and When to Change Yours)

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A one-size-fits-all approach to leadership is out, and situational project management leadership is in.

header image shows five leaders demonstrating their different styles

What do we mean by leadership style?

A leadership style is how you approach, manage, and support a team. It’s the role you play in helping them achieve a specific goal—what you’re focused on, the degree of your involvement/engagement, and how you respond to different stimuli.

66 days. That’s how long it takes to learn a new habit. That’s over two months of rewiring your brain chemistry, actions, and reactions before a new skill becomes second nature.

We often associate new skills with things such as learning to play an instrument or learning to speak a different language. But project management leadership is also a skill. While we each have a default approach, there are a variety of leadership styles available to you.

Here’s the thing: If you’re working with a new team, you don’t have 66 days to learn the best leadership style to apply in that situation. By the time you’re up to speed, you’ll have lost the team or the project (or both).

Luckily, remembering isn’t the same as learning.

If you take the time now to learn which style to apply in different situations, you’ll be able to call upon that knowledge in the future, adapt your approach to the needs of the team at hand, and hit the ground running.

In this article, we’ll outline five leadership styles and explain which style to leverage in any given project situation.

Why situational project management leadership is more effective than a one-size-fits-all approach

The digital world is having a profound impact on the way we work, disrupting technology and processes as well as human structures (i.e., leadership, organization, and culture).

Many aspects of traditional leadership—including using a one-size-fits-all approach—simply no longer work. Where predictability and consistency used to reign, flexibility and responsiveness now rule above all else.

“Rather than providing consistency, [a one-size-fits-all approach] engenders constraint; rather than boosting performance, it disrupts execution.”

—Suzanne Adnams and Tina Nunno, Gartner VP analysts (full report available to Gartner clients)

To survive and thrive in our digital age, leaders must embrace situational and adaptive leadership practices so they can empower teams to perform at their best.

Below, we’ll help you identify your default style as well as four other techniques to master so you can apply situational project management leadership practices (meaning, you’ll change your style to match the needs of the team you’re working with).

For example, you’ll use one technique if the team is new and inexperienced, a different technique if they’re self-managed, etc.

Understanding the different situational leadership styles

In the report “Five Situational Leadership Types for CIOs Working With Digital Teams,” Gartner outlines the different styles leaders can adopt depending on the makeup of their team and the desired outcome for the project (full report available to Gartner clients).

As you review the description and characteristics of the five styles, pay close attention to the type of team each style is most effective with. This will be the main identifier you’ll use to decide which style to apply in a given situation.

1. Collaborator

Collaborators are hands-on and directly involved in day-to-day work efforts. They provide operational support and serve as an in-team resource by offering guidance, sharing knowledge, and helping the team develop best practices. They assess performance based on how well the team responds to situations and tasks during execution.

Most effective with: New, learning, and/or inexperienced teams

2. Commander

Commanders are hands-off leaders; they don’t interfere with daily operations unless the project/team is veering away from the objective. They provide initial guidance, outline the goals and scope, and then turn over day-to-day project execution to the team. They assess performance based on whether the team achieved the goals that were given to them.

Most effective with: Established, self-managed, and/or experienced teams

3. Coach

Coaches supervise their team and provide day-to-day guidance on how to improve skills and execution. They act as a source of quality control, validating and checking work for individuals and offering constructive feedback as needed. Coaches assess performance at the team and individual contributor level , setting targets for individual as well as overall team improvement.

Most effective with: Operational, action-oriented teams

4. Catalyst

Catalysts provide a framework for innovation and breaking from the status quo. They outline what needs to get done, facilitate brainstorming sessions to initiate creative problem-solving, and reward team members for original suggestions. Catalysts assess team performance based on how creative and inventive the contributions and solutions are to the situation.

Most effective with: Entrepreneurial, innovative teams

5. Consultant

Consultants take on an adviser role, providing experience and insight to help the team achieve its goals. They set long-term outcomes and contribute to planning, but leave the day-to-day decision-making to the team. Consultants assess the team’s performance by observing how well team members work together to overcome challenges, make decisions, and deliver results.

Most effective with: Traditional, conservative, or evolving teams

When to change your leadership style

Now that you know the different leadership techniques available to you, you’ll be able to apply the right style based on the needs of your team in any given project situation.

How to apply situational project management leadership practices:

  • If you’re working with a new or inexperienced team, change to the Collaborator style.
  • If you’re working with self-managed or experienced teams, change to the Commander style.
  • If you’re working with operational, action-oriented teams, change to the Coach style.
  • If you’re working with entrepreneurial, innovative teams, change to the Catalyst style.
  • If you’re working with traditional or conservative teams, change to the consultant style.

If you want to learn more about improving team effectiveness, here are some additional articles on that topic:

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.

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