Social Process for Project Leaders


Advances in Project Management Series


By Ian Macdonald (UK)

Prof Catherine Burke (USA)


Karl Stewart (Australia)



A project involves a group of people who are assigned to work on a special task instead of, or in addition to, their normal work load.  A project is created to give concentrated attention to a task of limited and specific duration which may require interdisciplinary skills and experience or expertise from various organizational units or even different organisations.

Projects come in many different sizes and shapes.  There are large construction projects that involve hundreds of people from a variety of trades.  There are small group projects such as Process Improvement Teams (PIT) which may have only 3 people with the authority to call on special expertise within the organization when needed.

There are, of course, many sizes between the extremes as are differing times to completion from a few months to several years.  Despite their differences they all have several things in common.  To have a successful project all three organizational domains — technical, commercial, and social – must be taken into account.  Most organizations are pretty good at the first two; but leave a lot to be desired on the social processes in human interaction.

Systems Leadership Theory has been developed to provide a set of coherent models to assist in understanding the social domain including the culture of and behaviour in organizations.  It is a coherent and integrated theory of organisational behaviour based on over fifty years of worldwide research across many organisations and cultures.  It has a clear leadership model that is also directly related to a theory of human capability that in turn is related to structure and systems.  These ideas have been applied in a variety of organisations and projects in countries around the world and have led to successful project outcomes.

The entirety of the theory cannot be covered in one short paper; for this we refer you to the book, Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, 2nd ed. (Macdonald, Burke and Stewart, 2018).  Briefly, the theory begins with a model of core shared values which are found in all human societies.  These values of fairness, honesty, trust, respect for human dignity, courage and love are the values that hold human social groups together.  Different individuals and groups have stories (we call them mythologies because these are stories that carry a fundamental truth even when the specifics are fanciful) that demonstrate what is fair or respectful or courageous.  Groups that share common mythologies have what we define as a common culture.

One of the potential difficulties in project work is that members of the project team may have differing mythologies and therefore may view certain leadership behaviour as unfair or disrespectful, even if that is not the intent of the leader nor seen in the same way by others on the team.  It may take some time, but the leader must learn the mythologies of each member of the team and be able to see the world from each team member’s viewpoint if the project is to be successful.

There is also an essential need to recognise the complexity of the project in order to assign a leader who is capable of handling such complexity.  The work of Wilfred Brown (1960; 1971), Elliott Jaques (1976, 1989) and others Jaques ed. (1978), Macdonald (1984), Stamp (1978), Burke and Smith (1992) demonstrates the development of the ideas of levels of work as does Chapter 9 in Systems Leadership (2018).  We have found that most, but certainly not all, projects can be led at the 3rd, 4th or 5th level of complexity.  A few, like the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb, may require at least the 7th and possibly the 8th level of capability in the leader.

When the leader is at too low a level, or the project is not well defined, many things can go wrong.  The poet Robert Burns was not thinking of projects when he wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain For promis’d joy,” but as shown in the example below, he anticipated what can happen to a Project Leader.


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

How to cite this paper: Macdonald, I.; Burke, C.; Stewart, K. (2019). Social Process for Project Leaders, PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue IV (May).  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/pmwj81-May2019-Macdonald-Burke-Stewart-Social-Process-for-Project-Managers.pdf



About the Authors

Dr. Ian Macdonald

United Kingdom



Ian Macdonald is a chartered psychologist who graduated with Honours from Brunel University in London. He was an academic staff member at Brunel and continues to be associated there both as a consultant and as a Lifetime Honorary Fellow.  His PhD thesis was about the development of identity of people with learning difficulties through work. Ian is Founder and Director of Macdonald Associates, an international organisational consultancy established in 1983.  He is a director of BIOSS International Ltd.  He is also an honorary fellow at Brunel University, teaches at Surrey Business School and works with NHS Was and Welsh government. Over the past thirty years, Ian’s consultancy work has included many different countries, cultures and types of organisation from indigenous communities to financial services, from mining to the Church, from smelting aluminium in Siberia and Australia, to psychology services in Denmark.  He continues to work across all sectors.



Dr. Catherine Burke

California, USA



 Catherine Burke, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Public Administration, Emerita, University of Southern California, Price School of Public Policy where she taught classes for over thirty years at the doctoral, master’s and undergraduate levels.  Her research focuses on organisations and systems design, management theory and leadership.  She has been a consultant to Southern California Edison, the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena, and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.  She conducted two day-long training seminars for the command staff of LAPD in a program created by Chief Bernard Parks, discussing leadership, systems and organization structures that could be used in police departments.  Her publications include Innovation and Public Policy and articles in various academic journals.  She was a Director at Commonwealth Aluminum in Kentucky.



Karl Stewart

Queensland, Australia



 Karl Stewart is a mining engineer spending most of his working life in leadership positions.  He spent four years as an internal managerial consultant developing a thorough understanding of the theory underpinning the leadership of people in organisations and the systems that facilitate that activity.  He created and implemented these ideas as Managing Director of Comalco Smelting. He was President of the Australian Mines and Metals Association for several years.  After leaving Comalco Smelting he worked as a consultant to banks, aluminium, mining, finance and metallurgical industries.  He also served eight years as Chairman of a medium sized construction company based in Queensland.