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Key Competencies for Virtual Project Leadership


Rapid technological improvement and global competition have increased the growing movement of virtual organisations to perform projects and business strategies. Therefore, understanding the competencies, needed for implicit leadership effectiveness, is essential to organisational success. According to (Müller & Turner, 2010), the leadership of project managers or project leaders is one of the most significant components in project success as project leaders play a decisive role in establishing the guidance and encouraging a cumulative approach that influences project performance.

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Projects are always deriving dynamically, and project leadership is situational. In a project, the leader is required to have intellectual, social, and emotional intelligence to evaluate the circumstantial and organisational demands and alter the leadership pace accordingly (Mayer, et al., 1999).

The relevance of leadership in organisational success has long been noticed as a success aspect for organisations. The purpose of this paper is to identify and discuss the required key competencies for virtual project leadership, especially emotional intelligence (EI), which have been studied earlier by other scholars (Müller, et al., 2012) (Turner & Müller, 2005), together with the leadership processes and its capabilities for project leaders to successfully handle diverse projects.

Leadership and Early Theories

Leaders are good listeners and they are as well mentors, coaches, team builders, negotiators, and strategic planners (Müller, et al., 2012). According to (Dubrin, 2010), leadership is defined as a goal accomplishment by followers through the leader’s direction and leadership can be best explained by evaluating its important variables, for example, behaviour, style, competency, member characteristics, and the surroundings. (Donald, 2004) also defined leadership as the use of social influence and power to guide or change the character of people. The summarised definitions of Leadership from different authors is that the leadership is the competence which bring the cohesion of leaders and followers to teams or organisations.

In addition, there are early theories of leadership such as The Trait School, stated in the 1930–1940s, that focuses on identifying different characteristics which are linked to successful leadership across a variety of situations. It consists of three elements; motivationpersonality, such as self-confidence and emotional variables, and ability, such as management skills. It assumes that effective leaders are born, not made and they share the common traits. Recent researchers of this school include (Turner, 1999) for leadership in project management. In 1940s, The Behavioural School has classified the identities, specific behaviors of a leader, and assumed that successful leadership capability is based in determinable, can be learned or made, rather than being inherent. (Derue, et al., 2011) claimed that there is an absence of composition in the researches related to Trait and Behaviour theories. He argued that none of the study investigated both theories from various aspects, conversely, the focus was on one single trait or behaviour.

Later in 1960s, the Contingency school was emerged and suggested assumption that effective leaders are built from diverse situations. Supporters of this theory tend to follow a sequence that evaluate the distinctive styles of the leadership and assess the different leadership situations, then pair the leader characteristics with the situations (Turner & Müller, 2005). This theory has identified four different styles or behaviours of directivesupportiveparticipative and achievement-oriented leadership (Robbins, 1997), which are related to circumstantial and inferior factors. Those factors include the task, the personality of the leader and the group integration. In conclusion, there is no best approach of leading, and a leadership style that is effective in one situation may not be successful in other situations.

The Visionary and Charismatic school was developed in the 1980s, with an attention on organisational change, and distinguished between two leadership styles: transformational and transactional leadership styles (Bass & Bass, 2008). Transactional leadership focuses on rewards in exchange for encouragement, productivity and effective task accomplishment, while transformational leadership focuses on influencing attitudes and assumptions of followers to engage to the mission, and constantly try to complete the objective of the organisation (Slavik, et al., 2015).

Emotional Intelligence Theory

Later in 1990s, the Emotional Intelligence school was brought up. This school focuses on self-management and interpersonal management. Emotional intelligence can be defined as an “ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (Mayer, et al., 1990). (Fullan, 2001) claimed that “in a culture of change, emotions frequently run high,” and the study summed that emotional intelligence, leading diversity and creating successful associations, will be the responsibility of all future principals. Daniel (Goleman, et al., 2002), a famous psychologist who made the idea of emotional intelligence popular, proposed the notion of emotional Intelligence being a influential condition in both, leaders and organisations, and it can be learned by directing the related emotional competencies which are categorised into personal and social competences, within four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management as seen in table 1.

Cluster Competence Definition
Personal Competence (PC) Self-awareness

Emotional self-awareness

Accurate self-assessment


Awareness of one’s own emotional state

Awareness of one’s own strengths, weaknesses, and performance

Sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities


Emotional self-control





One’s ability to monitor and regulate one’s emotional states and emotional impulses

Maintaining standards of honesty and integrity

Being flexible when dealing with change

Optimistic outlook; persistence in pursing goals despite obstacles

Taking action on what needs to get done before they have been asked

Social Competence (SC) Social awareness


Organisational awareness

Service orientation

Sensing and understanding what others are feeling

Reading a group’s emotional currents and power relationships

Ability to understand others’ needs and provide services to meet their needs

Relationship management

Inspirational leadership

Developing others


Change catalyst

Conflict management

Building bonds

Teamwork & Collaboration

Inspiring and guiding individuals and having them follow without force

Sensing and bolstering others’ development needs

Wielding effective tactics for persuasion

Initiating or managing change

Negotiating and resolving disagreements

Nurturing instrumental relationships

Working with others toward shared goals

Table 1: Domains of Emotional Intelligence and Definitions of Competencies (Stubbs, 2005) (Goleman, et al., 2002)

It was mentioned in his later work (Goleman, et al., 2002) that not all leaders have all these 18 competencies, not all leaders are complete leaders, in fact the best leaders may have strong tendencies in only four to six competencies.

As the representative of Emotional Intelligence school (Goleman, 1996) considered that emotional capabilities are more essential for leadership than intellectual abilities. (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2000) supported this assertion by saying that the IQ test has failed to provide enough variance in success criteria both in the educational and in the organizational environments. A 200 international companies research in the work of (Goleman, 1999) again concluded that the qualities of early leadership theories needed the softer features that strengthen and supply the successful results.

Goleman, together with Boyatzis and McKee, their work of Primal Leadership (Goleman, et al., 2002) identified six distinct leadership styles: visionarycoachingaffiliativedemocraticpacesetting, and commanding. Each style has a different effect on people’s emotions. Each has advantages and disadvantages in different situations (Goleman, et al., 2002). It focuses on the ability of leaders to read the emotions in them and take the actions based on their followers (Müller, et al., 2012).

Numerous authors and research professionals have identified different types of competencies that determine leadership performance. However, the research of (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2003) have been conducted to determine leadership style based on the competencies correlated with IntellectualManagerial and Emotional characteristics.

(Dulewicz & Higgs, 2003) developed 15 competencies which had been used to identify types of leaders. The Competence school has integrated all aspects of other schools into 15 competencies within three dimensions: 3 Intellectual (IQ), 5 Managerial (MQ), and 7 Emotional (EQ) (Table 2) (Müller et al., 2012).

The seven different Emotional Intelligence competencies will be focused and defined briefly to show which attributes make up each leadership style to provide a better understanding and clarification of the techniques project leaders use to manage individuals, teams, and performance.

–          Self-awareness: being aware of their feelings and being able to manage them

–          Emotional resilience: being able to maintain one’s performance when under pressure

–          Motivation: having the drive and energy to attain challenging long-term goals or targets

–          Sensitivity: showing sensitivity and empathy towards others

–          Influence: the ability to influence and persuade others to accept your views or proposals

–          Intuitiveness: the ability to make decisions, using reason and intuition when appropriate

–          Conscientiousness: being consistent in one’s words and actions and behaving according to prevailing ethical standards.

Style Competency Goal oriented Involving Engaging
  1. Critical analysis and judgment
  2. Vision and Imagination
  3. Strategic Perspective









  1. Engaging Communication
  2. Managing Resources
  3. Empowering
  4. Developing
  5. Achieving















  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Emotional Resilience
  3. Motivation
  4. Sensitivity
  5. Influence
  6. Intuitiveness
  7. Conscientiousness





















Goal oriented : a style focused on delivery of clearly understood results in a relatively stable context. Involving : a style for transitional organisations which face significant change of their business model. Engaging : a style based on empowerment and involvement in highly transformational context.

Table 2 Fifteen leadership competencies and the competence profiles of their three styles of leadership(adapted from (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2003))

Full definitions can be found in (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2000). They identified three leadership profiles for organisational change projects, which they call goal orientedinvolving and engaging, and which are appropriate depending on the level of change to be achieved within an organisation. These styles are comparable to Transformational, Transactional and Participative styles that were formerly originated in other leadership style study. Results of their studies also showed that different leadership styles perform better or worse according to the type of the project following the Contingency school as described earlier. Therefore, the fifteen competencies mentioned previously can be used to explain the performance of project leaders on different types of projects.

Leadership Processes of Emotional Intelligence

According to (Ancona, et al., 2007), incomplete leaders search for people throughout their company who can complement their strengths and offset their weaknesses. Ancona and her co-authors suggest that a leader should accept that leaders are human, with strengths and weaknesses, understand and focus on four essential capabilities that all organisations need:

–          Sensemaking: diagnosis, framing, and understanding the business environment

–          Relating: developing trusts and building relationships

–          Visioning: encouraging new hopes, connecting goals to personal values

–          Inventing: building new ways of working or doing activities together

Then they search and work with people who can contribute the capabilities they are missing.

Capability Competency Example process
Sensemaking Self-awareness (EQ, PC)

Emotional resilience (EQ)

Organisational awareness (SC)

Self-control (PC)

Optimism (PC)

Sensitivity (EQ)

Leaders Involve teams in their sensemaking, inform what they think they are seeing and receive others’ different perspectives.
Relating Influence (EQ, SC)

Empathy (SC)

Transparency (PC)

Leaders are open-minded, listen without judgement, and spend time trying to understand others’ aspects
Visioning Self-confidence (PC) Leaders have enthusiasm to motivate themselves and others, use images or stories to convey complicated situations.
Inventing Adaptability (PC)

Motivation (EQ)

Influence (EQ)

Intuitiveness (EQ, PC)

Leaders find alternative method to group and link people, encourage creative ways to accomplish works and they do not think that things they have done are the best way to do.

Table 3: Emotional Intelligence process and contributing competencies (adapted from (Ancona, et al., 2007) (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2003) (Goleman, et al., 2002))

Emotional Intelligence, Teams and Project Success

Although there is a substantial body of literature on individual emotion and on emotional intelligence, there is mixed evidence regarding the effects of emotional intelligence in teams and work groups (Feyerherm & Rice, 2002) (Jordan & Troth, 2004). However, (Offermann, et al., 2004) found that teams with higher levels of EI performed better than teams with lower levels of EI.

Figure 1: Relationship between Leader Emotional Intelligence and Team Performance (Koman and Wolff, 2008)

It has been suggested that leaders must possess the knowledge and skills of emotional competencies to influence and move people (Boyatzis, et al., 2002).

Team leaders are responsible for the success of the teams they lead. As such, they are not only responsible for their own emotions, but also for the emotions of the team they lead and the clients of the team (Rafaeli & Worline, 2001).

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Group Emotional Intelligence has been shown to be significantly related to performance (Druskat, et al., 2003). This research will further validate the findings that group emotional intelligence effects team performance through the testing in the research of (Druskat, et al., 2003)

(Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996) have pointed out that emotional experiences change over time and that work behaviours also fluctuate depending on an employee’s flow of emotional experience. Employees generally encounter optimistic or pessimistic emotions in their work environment (Lindebaum & Jordan, 2014). It can be seen at work that optimistic feelings, mainly create productive outcome and empower teams to execute better (Mayer, et al., 2008) (Wong & Law, 2002) in the other hand pessimistic feelings – dissatisfaction, anger, and discomfort, can cause boredom and weaken team devotion. It can affect an achievement decline (Fisher, 2003) (McColl-Kennedy & Anderson, 2002) (Von, et al., 2004).

Emotionally intelligent project managers are more likely to experience and to express their emotions positively (Peslak, 2005). This, in turn, is likely to increase the enthusiasm of project managers, enabling them to communicate effectively towards their team members and to facilitate creativity towards addressing challenging tasks (Carmeli, 2003).

Indeed, researchers (Clarke, 2010) (Mazur, et al., 2014) (Müller & Turner, 2010) have consistently found that EI is a prerequisite for project success. In particular, Müller and Turner found direct evidence that EI increases the chance of project success, especially in highly complex project environments. (Thomas & Mengel, 2008) found that project managers who score high on EI have the ability to recover quickly from negative emotions and stress in difficult situations. (Clarke, 2010) also reinforces the importance of EI in project manager effectiveness. He reported that EI acts as an underlying ability that determines the behavioural complexity of project managers in complex project situations.


Project leadership is about putting emphasis on team, directing people towards the accomplishment of project objectives, “motivating and guiding people to realize their potential and achieve tougher and challenging organizational goals”, and leadership also guides teams to improve and unitedly grow as professionals while accomplishing their project accountabilities at the same time (Anantatmula, 2010). A higher level of collaboration among project teams is essential to achieve the project success.

The review of leadership competencies and their role in project success was well documented in this paper. The research findings and arguments are from different articles, refereed papers, reports, and books. It was concluded that the importance of leadership in project organising lies within the importance of creating a supportive environment where project leaders are leaning toward the transformational side with an emphasis on matching the project leadership style with project type.

Overall, these studies provide compelling evidence for the significant role EI plays in determining project success factors.

The findings of the literature show that different leadership competencies are related to leadership success in different projects. Furthermore, there is a strong relation between emotional competencies and the project leadership style leading to project success. This was confirmed by other studies which have shown that line managers also require emotional intelligence more than project managers and by this, the higher the level in the hierarchy, the higher the Emotional Intelligence competencies required.


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