IPMA International Project Management Association
14 July 2022 / 12:00

Project leadership and situational sensitivity

Project leadership is a journey of continuous adjustments and refinements of actions and behaviours, rather than the mere mastery of a best practise-based set of skills. It has remained one of the most talked about issues in project management, if not contentious. The role of project leadership is critical to the outcome of the projects, not least because of the variety of ways in which it is exercised.

Project leadership is as situational as it is task-oriented. This makes the project leader’s role sensitive, with the added complexity of working within constraints of time, budget, uncertainties, and customer expectations. Consequently, there is no one way to benchmark the effectiveness of a project leader because effectiveness is relative to the demands of the situation. With every project literally different, leadership in projects is about adaptation and being situationally sensitive.

Situational sensitivity is not entirely a new concept. The British-born management behavioralist, William James Reddin (Wikipedia, 2015), was one of the first authors who wrote about it.

Situational sensitivity is one of the traits of leadership. Simply put, it is an understanding of the need (e.g., type, quality, quantity, level of involvement, foresight, etc.) for leadership corresponding to the situation. In a project management context, just an understanding of the need for leadership seems intuitively limiting, unless it is followed by a response to the need and the dynamics of interactions between people, processes, and systems within the project eco-system. Since systems and processes are created by people, people remain the main drivers of situational sensitivity in projects.

While situational sensitivity is akin to leadership, its use in project leadership is not as widespread as one would expect it to be, particularly given that projects are inherently risk-prone and constantly threatened by internal and external uncertainties of all kinds. Some may argue that project leaders exercise a varying degree of situational sensitivity (though not called as such) by regularly identifying risks, putting in place risk response strategies, and monitoring the occurrence of risks and the effectiveness of risk response strategies in mitigating the risks. But given the long history of project failures in all types of industries and business segments, there seems to be a need for self-introspection on the relationship between project failures and leadership.

Project leadership through situational sensitivity requires tactful handling of multiple elements and parameters within the project ecosystem through a cocktail of diplomacy, objectivity and fairness, empathy, sound judgement, decision-making, and standing ground when needed.

With projects becoming increasingly complex, the skills set needed by future project managers has emerged as an important area of research, and an understanding of how to deal with situational sensitivity effectively is part of these trends. While possessing the desired skill set or an understanding of how to exercise situational sensitivity in projects is not an antidote to project failures, these skills can certainly help in avoiding major pitfalls in project management.

Noble Prize Laureate George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Without going into the debate on the merits of the role a project manager should play, certainly, these words epitomise the approach needed for project leadership through situational sensitivity for improved project outcomes.

Wikipedia 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James_Reddin

Acknowledgement: A longer version of this article was previously published on projectmanagement.com

© 2022 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.

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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals as well as industry outlets.