The Leader's role in projects, programs and portfolios

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This article analyses the role of the leader in projects, programs and portfolios. It takes a closer look at how to be a good leader in the respective categories.

The article starts by defining leadership. this is done by looking at the difference between leaders and managers, leader core competences, transformational leadership, working with a team and some reflections on manipulation. By doing so it goes from general towards more concrete leadership theory.

The Article then investigates leadership in projects programs and portfolios. Leadership is particularly important in project since the leader works directly with people. Programs require good leadership too because they need a clear vision and someone to pass it on to the workers. Lastly it has also been shown that good leadership on portfolio level is found to have a positive and significant influence on the projects. [1] It is therefore clear that good leadership can have a big impact on the performance of the projects, programs and portfolios and should be prioritized.



Leaders and managers

Figure 1: On the horizontal axis is time spend on the four managerial tasks and on the vertical is the manager position.[2]

The person in charge is often referred to as both manager and leader. This can lead to the thinking that managing and leading is the same thing. This is, however, not the case. Whether an organization refers to the person in charge as leader or manager often depends on what field the organization is in. Organizations that work with people e.g. the military and most non-profit organizations often refer to the person in charge as the leader. Businesses on the other hand often refer to their top person as a manager.

It is interesting how organizations, that work with people, are more inclined to use the term leader, while organizations that work with creating and selling products often use the term manager. Figure 1 has a business perspective since the people in charge are described as managers. It describes that the higher the person is in the company the less leading the person does and the more planning, controlling and organizing. This shows a shift from working with people on the low level and working more with processes in the higher levels.

Many have summed up the differences between managers and leaders through the time. An example can be seen in the table below. [3] This table shows clearly that the manger focuses more on the technicalities and the leader more on people. The manger's focus is on the practical, he makes the system and tells people when and how things are supposed to be done. He is the one that makes the plans and makes sure everything is done accordingly and makes sure things doesn't stop.

The leader on the other hand is the visionary. The leader makes change happen and inspire the workers to move forward and further. While people listen to the manager because of his authority they listen to the leader because of his influence. In short, the leader is more defined by his personality and the manager more by his actions.

Manager Leader
Technical Visionary
Plans Inspires
Focuses on system Focuses on people
Has authority Has influence
Asks how and when Asks why
Knows how it's done Shows how it's done
Says "I" Says "we"
Does things right Does the right things

Leader core competences

What is a good leader then? It is not new to analyse what makes a leader good or bad. Already in 500 BC both Confucius and Aristotle were looking into it. In more resent time six different schools of leadership have risen. They emerged in the 20th century and are as follows:

  1. The trait school
  2. The behavior school
  3. The contingency school
  4. The visionary or charismatic school
  5. The emotional intelligence school
  6. The competence school

The last one of these, the competence school, incorporates elements from the previous 5 schools and may therefore give a more complete picture than the other 5. [4]

The competence school looks at leaders from three different intelligences. The first is the intellectual intelligence (IQ). This includes firstly critical analysis & judgment, secondly vision and imagination and lastly strategic perspective. The second intelligence is the managerial intelligence (MQ). This intelligence includes engaging communication, managing resources, empowering, developing and achieving. The third intelligence is the emotional intelligence (EQ). This intelligence measures self-awareness, emotional resilience, motivation, sensitivity, influence, intuitiveness and Conscientiousness.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is about getting the followers to see the big picture. By showing the importance of the assignment and how the individual contributes to the organization the follower will then be more motivated towards their work.

To be a transformational leader the person has to

  1. make subordinates aware of the importance and necessity of their job in relation to the organization
  2. make the subordinate aware of their own need for growth, development and accomplishment
  3. motive the subordinates to work for the organization as a whole and not just for themselves. [2]

The really fascinating thing about transformational leadership is that it can circumvent hierarchical links. It can actually have an effect on the lower levels of the organization even though it is performed by a leader in the top. [5]

Working with a team

The leader’s goal can be summarized in one sentence; to deliver results through others. [6] To achieve through others the leader is very dependent on the team. Therefore the first important skill for a leader is to make his team. The leader has to find members whose personalities complement each other and who can work together at the same time. There are many tools that can be used to help in this process; one is the Belbin's team roles. This tool has nine different roles that often emerge in group work. A test will show the participants which roles they are most suited for. Using this tool the leader can find teammates that complement each other and make an effective team.

When the team is made the process of delivering through others begin. To deliver through others the leader must define the task at hand, give feedback and coach the team. The leader is the one who has the overview of the situation. Having the overview he then defines the tasks to be done. When the tasks are carried out the leader then gives feedback to the team members. This will help them grow and learn from their experience. In the end it is the leader’s job to coach and empower the team so they become independent and start finding their own solutions to the problems. [6]

Reflections on manipulation

Leadership is the process in which one person exerts influence over other people. [2] Since this is the case, manipulation often becomes very tempting to leaders, however, since the leader often is accepted by his integrity this is a dangerous pitfall.

From personal reflections I have come to the definition of manipulation as trying to make others dependent on oneself. The manipulator wants the manipulated to come to him for their opinion. The manipulator works to become a bottle neck that removes all unwanted information and perspectives. The goal of the manipulator is to become the one source of "truth" for the manipulated.

The opposite of manipulation then becomes education. While the manipulator tries to make everyone dependent on himself, the educator tries to make the follower independent. The educator wants to give the followers the best he has so that the followers themselves can explore new perspectives and information. According to this thought, the educator’s greatest joy will be to see the followers surpass himself and become independent.

The leader must therefore always keep an eye on his motivation. Why is he leading? Does he want control or growth?

Projects, programs and portfolios

To handle projects, programs and portfolios I have chosen to split them up and handle them separately. The setup is the same for all three, first there is a short definition, then an explanation of the leader's role and lastly the practical application.

Projects and leadership

Project definition

The project is a onetime change oriented assignment. It is something that falls outside the normal routines of the organization. To handle this, the organization often sets up a group. The group is normally comprised of members from different places in the organization since the assignment often affects more than just one area in the organization.

A project has a concrete frame. It has a set time limit and a limited amount of resources. The project focuses on delivering the agreed "product" within the limits given. [7]

The leaders role in projects

Small projects are often done by groups therefore the leader of a project is found as the leader of the group. For big projects or super projects, where more than 100 or even 1000 of people work, the leader has more interaction with the leaders of different areas in the project.

The role of the leader then is dependent on the size of the project. If it is a small project it is possible for the leader to meet all the involved people and be a leader to them. In a big project the leader's role becomes more that of a leader of leaders. According to figure 1 a project leader will spend more time managing in super project.

Practical applications

In small projects the ability to form an effective team becomes key to the success of the project. This is where it is most important for the leader to know how to make the team so it will work the best.

A study based on the leadership competences has been made to examine if successful project leaders share some specific competences. The study was done by using some questionnaires and it got 400 usable responses. The study found 4 common factors for the successful project leader, critical thinking from the intellectual intelligence (IQ) and influence, motivation and conscientiousness from the emotional intelligences (EQ). [8]

From the study it is clear that if a leader has these four core competences the size of the project does not matter. The project can be big or small but the leader will still be well suited to handle it. However, the kind of project may have an influence since different projects require different core competences. The table below shows some of the more specific requirements in some of the major areas.

Table over the needed leadership competences for the best performance in the different projects.

Programs and leadership

Program definition

A program is a collection of projects that share a common goal. Often the projects in a program are of similar type or they support each other, therefore they are also dependent on each other. The entire Program can, however, finish without all the projects in it being a success. This is possible as long as the overarching goal of the program has been achieved. The program has an end term and when that is reached it is done. [7]

The leaders role in programs

The program is lead by a program group that focuses on the goal for the program. This group can be comprised in different ways. For small programs it could be a leader for the program, working with all the project leaders. For big programs it is better to have a program group that all focus on the end goal. [7]

Practical applications

Program is all about vision. Since the program has a certain goal this goal has to be communicated and shared among the entire team. This is the same for big or small programs. The main job of the leader here is to get people to take ownership of the vision. [9]

The easiest way to get ownership of the vision is by involving the participant in the process of getting it. This is often impossible in bigger companies and another method has to be employed. The burning platform [7] approach can then be used. The approach is to make the people unsatisfied with the current situation. When they then ask for change the leader can show them the vision of the future. This will then motivate them to work for the goal and hopefully take ownership of the vision themselves.

Portfolios and leadership

Portfolio definition

A portfolio is the combination of all the different projects and programs in the organization. The portfolio does not have a goal as the program has, it is just where all the projects and programs can be found. The portfolio does not have en end term but continues as long as the organization continues. The portfolio gives an immediate picture of all the projects and programs of the organization. The advantage of a portfolio is that it can help allocate the right resources to the right projects and programs at the right time. It helps manage everything. [7]

There can also be smaller portfolios in a firm with different themes like IT or change. These portfolios are not programs since they still don't have an end date and the projects and programs in them aren't necessarily connected.

The leaders role in portfolios

The portfolio is often lead by a group of top managers in the organization. The leader of this group is often the CEO or the CTO. Since it is impossible to get to every person working in every project and program the leadership role here is mainly in the group of top managers.

For smaller portfolios it is one of the top managers that also has the leader role. in these it may also be possible to get around to all the programs and projects.

Practical applications

It has been proven that transformational leadership can go past the hierarchical structure and influence the outcome of the individual projects.[1] Transformational leadership then becomes an important tool in portfolio management. It is further applicable to portfolios, since by its nature, transformational leadership is focusing on this big picture of the organization. This can then help the CEO or top leader to decide which projects and programs will be relevant for the portfolio.

Transformational leadership also creates stronger top leaders by empowering them and gives them a stronger connection to the organization. The entire organization could emerge stronger and with better unity if transformational leadership is implemented right.


The biggest problem in looking at the Leadership of projects, programs and portfolio is the data. There have been many studies about project leadership but there are very few sources dealing with program and portfolio management.

On programme leadership I was forced to look at the leadership theories and recommend what seems logical and important for the task. This means the application is mainly build on personal assumption and should be tested.

There is some controversy about the burning platform approach mentioned in program leadership. The critique mainly focuses around the idea of making people unsatisfied. The argument is that unsatisfied people will leave the job and find somewhere else to work. While this risk exists, it is possible to point to things that aren't working properly or can be improved, without making people dislike the place they work. This means that there is an important balance when using this approach.

Another critique is that the burning platform is a kind of manipulation. If the definitions of manipulation and education mentioned further up is adopted, then the burning platform is neither one or the other but a tool. It can be used to educate by showing the people in the organization what can be improved, but it can also be used as a tool to manipulate others to get them to want the same as the person in charge. It all depends on the motive behind it.

In portfolio leadership I managed to find one very good article on transformational leadership which I based most of the application on. Transformational leadership is very good if implemented correctly, however that is easier said than done. One of the downsides with charismatic leadership is that it is energy and time consuming. It also requires a leader with good maturity and some charisma to be really effective.


It is clear that the person in charge has to be both a leader and a manager at the same time. Both skills are indispensable. The value of managing is very clear and through this article the value of leadership has also been shown. Leadership can greatly impact the success of a project, program or portfolio as has been shown through different studies.

In projects the leader needs to work with the team. There he is the coach and the one who has the overview. He needs to motivate the team and challenge them to grow. In programs it is important for the leader to share the end goal. He has to make the participants in the program take ownership of the vision. Lastly in portfolio management the leader has a great opportunity to influence the other leaders in the top of the organization. By using transformational leadership he can help the top leaders get better and grow stronger ties to the organization. This will result in a stronger organization.

The biggest problem with this topic is the lack of information. There is much information on the project level. However, there is not much research on leadership in programs and portfolios. Here is a challenge that should be taken serious because the little information that is, points towards big potential benefits.

Annotated bibliography

  1. For project leadership see "Linking Complexity and Leadership Competences of Project Managers" [4]
  2. For more information on vision setting and sharing I recommend "vision to die for" by Bille Hybels. It is a presentation in the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit [9]
  3. For information on portfolio leadership see "Examining the role of transformational leadership of portfolio in managers in project performance" [1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 John Kissi, Andrew Dainty & Martin Tuuli 2011; Examining the role of transformational leadership of portfolio managers in project performance
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Gareth R. Jones & Jennifer M. George 2015; Essentials of Contemporary Management, 6th edition
  3. This table is taken form: David Morrison: Leader or manager?, page 110 of Qbusiness july 2015,
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ralf Müller, Joana G. Geraldi & J Rodney Turner; Linking Complexity and Leadership Competences of Project Managers
  5. F. J. Yammarino 1994; Indirect leadership:transformational leadership at a distance. quoted in John kissi et al.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Dion Sørensen 2011; Leder udvikling. Chapter 3
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Mette Lindgaard Attrup & John Ryding Olsson 2008; Power i projekter & portefølje, 2. udgave
  8. Ralf Müller, Rodney Turner 2009; Leadership competency profiles of successful project managers
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bill Hybels; vision to die for. The Global Leadership Summit 2007
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