Successful Project Management

in a Low Authority Environment



By Joseph Lukas

New York, USA




A frequent complaint by project managers is that they do not have the authority to do their job. Project managers are expected to elicit top performance from all members of the project team, often in an environment of high responsibility and low authority, coupled with the use of borrowed resources in a matrix organizational structure. This paper will explain how to strengthen your ability to effectively work with project teams and other stakeholders to achieve project success without formal authority. This paper will explore the difference between a leader and manager, the sources of power available to all project managers, the role of emotional intelligence, and how personality styles impact the application of leadership and management. Also covered in this paper are suggested methods for getting results and dealing with conflict in an environment of low authority.

Leaders versus Managers

Let’s start out by clarifying the difference between a leader and a manager. A leader is someone who influences and inspires people. A leader will motivate, bring out the best in others, and get people to work together to achieve a common goal. A manager is a person who is responsible for directing and controlling the work of others. A manager will organize, control, balance priorities and make sure the work gets done. Developing and championing a new idea is leadership, while implementing the idea is management. A quote that nicely summarizes the difference between managers and leaders is “managers do things right while leaders do the right things” (Hitt, 1998, p. 5.).

So are leadership or management skills more important to be a successful project manager, or are they equally important? The projects undertaken by a company or organization should align with the corporate vision and strategy, which is typically determined by middle and top management. This level of management also decides on the projects that will be done to support the strategic plans. Note that project managers are responsible for getting these projects successfully done by directing and controlling the work of others. Key responsibilities for project managers include organizing, coordinating, resolving issues and conflicts, and communicating. These descriptors are all about managing the project. You will frequently see in the job description for a project manager a statement about “leading the project team.” However, the reality is that most of what project managers do is simply not leadership. While having a project manager who is a good leader is highly desirable, the manager function is more critical in order to successfully implement the project. The project team may look at the sponsor, some other key executive, or even a respected team member as the person providing the leadership. This isn’t something that gets listed in the role and responsibilities for a project, but the project manager should consider for a project whether the team sees her/him as a leader; or if that will come from another source. Don’t take this as a personal insult since leadership is situational.

The Role of Power

The dictionary defines power as the capacity to do something and includes the control and influence over other people and their actions. In a notable study of power conducted by social psychologists John French and Bertam Raven in 1959, power was divided into five separate and distinct forms: coercive, reward, legitimate, referent, and expert (MindTools, ¶1-5). Although the French and Raven list is frequency cited, listed below is a composite list more specific to the different types of power that are relevant to project managers (Changing Minds, ¶1, 2, 4-8):



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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland PM Symposium in May 2019.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Lukas, J.A. (2019). Successful Project Management in a Low Authority Environment; presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland Project Management Symposium, College Park, Maryland, USA in May 2019; PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue IX, October.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/pmwj86-Oct2019-Lukas-successful-project-management-in-a-low-authority-environment.pdf



About the Author

Joseph Lukas

New York, USA




Joseph A. Lukas, PMP, CSM, PE, CCP has been involved in project management for over 35 years. His work experience spans engineering, manufacturing, construction, project controls, estimating, contracting and project, program and portfolio management. His projects experience includes information systems, product development, construction and manufacturing. Joe joined PMI in 1986 and has held many Chapter Board positions in Rochester, NY including two terms as President. He is a registered Professional Engineer, Project Management Professional, Certified Scrum Master and Certified Cost Professional. Joe has over 50 published articles on project management topics and is a frequent guest speaker for companies and organizations across the country. Joe teaches and consults on project management topics and interpersonal skills.

Joe Lukas can be contacted at Joe.Lukas@PMCentersUSA.com