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3 Leadership Styles for Effective Project Management

Navigating Team Dynamics and Project Challenges Through Adaptive Leadership


KEY POINTS

Explore key leadership styles: Understand the unique characteristics and applications of democratic, authoritative and affiliative leadership styles to effectively manage diverse project teams.
Match style to project needs: Learn how to choose the right leadership style based on the specific needs of the project, team dynamics and individual scenarios to enhance team productivity and project success.
Constantly keep up to date by training yourself and proactively asking for feedback from your team and peers.
Effective project management
author
JAMS Pathways Editors

Imagine a project manager juggling tasks, deadlines and a team of brilliant (but sometimes opinionated) individuals. It's a complex symphony, where the right leadership style can make all the difference between a harmonious project and a cacophony of missed deadlines.

Newcomers to the role often underestimate the importance of good leadership in project management. Sure, you need communication skills to keep everyone informed, conflict resolution skills to navigate disagreements and stakeholder management skills to keep everyone happy. But without strong leadership, your project can easily veer off course.

If you are newly starting on the journey of uncovering your leadership abilities, you might have asked yourself what the best leadership style is and, most importantly, which one best fits you. The truth that all experienced leaders know is that there's no single "best" style, as different projects and teams call for different approaches. In this article, we’ll explore the main three styles that work best to lead teams in a project setting: democratic leadership, authoritative leadership and affiliative leadership styles. We'll also explore the benefits and disadvantages of each so you’re better equipped to choose the right one for your project.

Democratic Leadership Style: A Collaborative Chorus

What is democratic leadership? Think of a democratic leader as a conductor, drawing out the best from each team member to create a beautiful project symphony. This style emphasizes collaboration, with the leader actively seeking input from the team.

Key characteristics include:

  • Open communication: Information flows freely, fostering trust and transparency.
  • Collaborative decision-making: Team members feel valued and invested in the project's success.
  • Encouragement of diverse perspectives: Brainstorming sessions and open discussions allow everyone to feel safe and share new ideas and effective solutions.

This approach is better suited when:

  • Your project requires a variety of expertise—think a marketing campaign needing input from designers, writers and social media specialists.
  • Building team morale and buy-in is crucial—a democratic approach fosters a sense of ownership.
  • You need creative problem-solving—diverse perspectives can lead to better outcomes.

However, this style might not be the perfect fit for:

  • Projects with tight deadlines where quick decisions are essential—too much discussion can lead to delays.
  • Teams that have a history of conflict where cooperation might prove more difficult to achieve
  • Teams with limited experience or lacking confidence in their own judgment—a more direct approach might be needed

Authoritative Leadership Style: A Clear Vision, a Steady Hand

An autocratic leader, often referred to as a visionary leader, is like a skilled captain steering the ship toward a clear destination. They have a well-defined vision for the project and inspire their team to achieve it. These leaders are known for their:

  • Strong decision-making skills: They chart the course and make clear choices, keeping the project on track.
  • Delegation based on strengths: They understand their team's capabilities and delegate tasks effectively.
  • Openness to feedback while remaining confident: They value input as a way to achieve project success, but they ultimately make decisions based on experience.

Authoritative leadership is ideal when:

  • Your project has clear expectations. A software development project benefits from a leader who understands the technical road map.
  • Your team has a moderate level of experience and is comfortable following directions.
  • Decisive leadership is needed to navigate roadblocks or meet tight deadlines.

Keep in mind:

  • An overreliance on direction can stifle creativity. Balance clear vision with opportunities for team input.
  • Ineffective communication of the vision can lead to frustration and a disconnect between leader and team.

Affiliative Leadership Style: Building Bridges, Boosting Morale

An affiliative leader is akin to a team cheerleader, fostering a positive environment where everyone feels valued and supported. While this can bear resemblances to the democratic style, it is different in the way that it prioritizes high morale and harmonious team relationships over collaborative, rational decision-making within the team, especially when this can give way to conflict. Instead, this style focuses on:

  • Team morale and emotional well-being: They recognize the importance of a happy team for project success.
  • Open communication and conflict resolution: They create a space for open communication and address concerns constructively.

Affiliative leadership is the right choice when:

  • Morale and team productivity are essential for success—think of a creative team working on a new product launch.
  • Your team has diverse personalities or working styles, which makes conflict prevention a key area of focus.
  • The project already has a clear direction and can do without a great deal of brainstorming and input.

However, this style might not be as effective for:

  • Projects without a clear direction—a clear vision and firm guidance might be needed
  • Teams lacking focus or discipline—a more structured approach might be beneficial

Choosing Your Leadership Style: A Balancing Act

Choosing the right approach is not about finding a one-size-fits-all solution. It's about finding what serves you, your team and your project the best. It is even common that some project managers adapt different styles within the course of the same project, depending on the situation.

Below we have compiled a leadership styles comparison chart so you can better weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each:

Style

Characteristics

Advantages

Disadvantages

Democratic

Open communication, collaborative decision-making, encouragement of diverse perspectives

Projects requiring diverse expertise, building team morale and buy-in, fostering innovation and creative problem-solving

Can be slow in decision-making, may not be effective with inexperienced teams

Authoritative

Strong decision-making skills, delegation based on strengths, open to feedback

Projects with well-defined goals and clear expectations, teams with a moderate level of experience and comfortable following direction, situations where decisive leadership is needed

Can stifle creativity, may lead to frustration if vision is not communicated effectively

Affiliative

Trust and rapport, focus on team morale and emotional well-being, open communication and conflict resolution

Teams with diverse personalities or working styles, building trust and collaboration during project kickoff stages, situations where morale and team cohesion are essential

May not be effective for projects requiring strong direction and decisive leadership

While these styles are the most well suited for projects, they are not the only leadership styles you can use. Many others, like the pacesetting leadership style or the servant leadership style, might still be relevant depending on project and team dynamics, so we encourage you to research them as well.

Choosing the right approach is not about finding a one-size-fits-all solution. It's about finding what serves you, your team and your project the best.

How to Develop Your Project Manager Leadership Skills

Now that we have gone through the best application of leadership styles in project management, you might have identified a few styles that come more easily to you and others that might be more challenging to apply. This is completely normal, as each one of us has different talents and strengths. It is worth remembering, however, that self-improvement is an ongoing journey and there is much you can do to become more efficient at applying each style depending on the situation.

If you are looking to develop the skills that don’t come so naturally to you, consider the following approaches:

  • Invest in training: Consider taking professional training in the skills you’re less comfortable with, to get to the next level. The JAMS Conflict Resolution Training, for example, is one of the most sought after by managers.
  • Seek feedback from your team: Ask for their honest assessment of your leadership style and areas for improvement, or for a 360 assessment.
  • Observe other leaders: Learn from experienced project managers and mentors.
  • Read books and articles on leadership: Stay up to date on the latest leadership trends and techniques.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Take on opportunities to lead and model some of the behaviors that don’t come as naturally to you, as you will get more confident in time.

If you’re interested in understanding which soft skills you need to improve your leadership qualities in project management, you might want to check our article on the 15 characteristics of a good leader.

If project management is like conducting an orchestra, its leadership style is akin to the rhythm; it should be artfully played to fit the skills of the individual players. Whether it is the collaborative spirit of democratic leadership, the visionary direction of authoritative leadership or the supportive nature of affiliative leadership, each approach offers valuable tools for different scenarios and team dynamics.

We encourage you to embrace these styles as part of your project management toolkit, which you can adapt to the evolving needs of your projects. We hope you lead with insight and compassion and let each decision contribute to a symphony of project success. 

Disclaimer:
This page is for general information purposes. JAMS makes no representations or warranties regarding its accuracy or completeness. Interested persons should conduct their own research regarding information on this website before deciding to use JAMS, including investigation and research of JAMS neutrals.
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