How to Use Project Teams to Foster a Benevolent Leadership Culture

The Vast Untapped Potential of Projects

Many organisations have realised the value of projects to focus on important and urgent work to get the job done quickly and effectively. An increasing number have moved to becoming project-based organisations as a result of the tumultuous times in which we live where the power of project teams to carry out tasks may be fully leveraged. But surprisingly few have seen the wood for the trees and understand the vast untapped potential of projects to shift leadership culture.

Workplace demands and complexity, and emerging new and sophisticated project management tools, will reinforce and accelerate the trend to project-based organisations. And there exists a huge opportunity to leverage project-based organisations in a new way – not just the running of projects to get work done in discreet chunks, but also by using projects to positively change the soul of the entire organisation.

Cherishing Esprit De Corps

The key is to tap into project ‘esprit de corps’—the proud spirit of a body of people, a team or group. Note that, although usually associated with small teams or groups, the definition does not preclude large organisations. When this dynamic—a function of benevolent leadership—is palpably present, then it can be transplanted to the rest of the organisation. The benevolent leadership model brings together all the components of the separate fields of study that have become known as authentic, ethical, conscious, spiritual, and servant leadership.

Aronson et al refer to “strategic project leadership” of which “project spirit” is a major dimension. Project spirit “deals with the excitement, passion and enthusiasm, as a driving force, which energises teams, unleashes talent, enhances project performance” and is “the collective emotional state of a project team as nurtured by management and stated by all team members.” (Aronson, Z.H. et al 2001). It is an attitudinal and behavioural construct. One that includes shared everything: purpose, real belonging, adventure, risk, discovery, responsibility, ups and downs, results and rewards, having each other’s backs, caring, and so on.

“Get used to it. Spirituality is creeping into the office… and companies are turning inward in search of a ‘soul’ as a way to foster creativity and to motivate leaders.”
~Business Week, June 5, 1995

I have been directly involved in and witnessed this dynamic in my own career:

  • A re-engineering project taught the entire organisation how to plan from right-to-left, to make sure everything got done right, on time, to budget and without endless meetings, reviews and over-planning 
  • Setting up the first Motorway Service Area in Africa required a paradigm shift both internally in the organisation and externally (by the controlling Government body, the Department of Transport) – from a vehicle-based to a people-based mind-set
  • Designing and executing a local level margin-management pricing system also needed a paradigm shift (away from national and regional pricing; and taking a more nuanced approach to price-setting in a highly competitive retail market) that then pervaded the entire organisation

The impact of these projects was impressive in monetary terms but exponentially more so in terms of introducing positivity, a growth mind-set and ‘possibilist’ thinking throughout the organisation. There is no denying the power of a small team’s shared experiences.

9 Constraints to Leveraging Projects as Incubators of Benevolent Leadership

  1. Holding on to the old

    As we inexorably transition from machine age to modern organisations, a number of leadership culture push-and-pull forces are at play. Some obvious, some obscure, some even unconscious. They direct how we think, feel and act. Inherent in this shift is a search for soul, an awakening to the spiritual (not religious). (Williams, G. & Cooper, E. 2018)

    Ashmos and Duchon pointed out the emergence of strong workplace spirituality (inner life, meaning, purpose, connection, community) nearly two decades ago. (Ashmos, D.P. and Duchon, D. (2000)

    This reinforces the need for leadership that does not command and control, but achieves outcomes via the building of sound, nurturing relationships with employees, and a simultaneous self-emptying (kenosis). When times get tough there is temptation to revert to the old way, which impacts on both organisational and project leadership.

  2. Simply not perceiving the potential

    People and organisations tend to become trapped in their own limited thinking and behaviours. Rather like being in Plato’s Cave – a situation where we are shackled and face only the back wall of the cave and can see only the shadows of the fire that blazes outside, but not the fire itself. We have only an illusion, a limited internal reality. Morgan refers to this using the metaphor of a ‘psychic prison.’ He suggests that “In thinking about an organization this way, we are thus alerted to the pathologies that may accompany our (own) ways of thinking.” (Morgan, G. 1086)

    Project Managers should be free to break organisational culture bonds as they pursue their important projects, and to find new realities that can help set the organisation free beyond the bounds of their project. This requires deft, nurturing action by savvy organisational leadership. The rewards that beckon for individuals, teams and the organisation include freedom of action, adventure, discovery, trust, collaboration, empowerment and sharing of everything from purpose to measured outcomes.

  3. The Project Manager’s Status and Credibility

    It is common in some organisations for project managers to be perceived as having less status than line managers, and less power (for example, to influence the careers of their team members). This is partly because of the relatively short life-time of projects, that when finished, see the team members returning to their original, ‘more permanent’ roles.

    The project manager’s status needs to be elevated to overcome such perceptions. So senior project sponsors ought to make it clear that project managers carry responsibility for organisational change beyond the immediate task parameters and carry primary influence in terms of their member’s career progression.  

    Suitable reward is indicated. As is recognition of what project team members are exposed to during tough projects. Their personal growth can be facilitated when remuneration is based not only on a rate for the job, but also on carefully weighted competence and contribution components.

  4. Moderating factors that restrict the development of ‘spiritual,’ benevolent leadership

    Sense and Fernando draw attention to several factors that act as moderating influences on the development of spirituality in a project. These need to be countered by the empowered project manager. Their moderating factors are:

    • Organizational culture – the culture surrounding the project may shape or inhibit the development of a suitable desirable project culture. (see Plato’s Cave discussion #2 above)
    • Attributes of the individual – the values and attitudes of the individual team members, their cognitive style and preferred way of doing things.
    • Project work process – an individual’s conception of the worth of the project can be affected by its aims, strategies, structure, and work design.
    • Attachment – project participants emotional link to the project outcomes.

      (Sense and Fernando, 2011: 507 – 509)

      The latter three factors can be countered to quite a large extent by coaching, counselling, positive peer pressure, shared involvement in determining purpose, running the project, making decisions, appreciating diversity, and other project esprit de corps factors.

  5. Rules-based operating

    Challenging projects in a dynamic business environment progress is best when there is freedom to explore, decide, and do so without direct ‘outside’ interference hampering cultural baggage and rules-based leading and operating. This is not to say that rules are unimportant, but that they become pretty much redundant when mature behaviour is in play. When behaviour is guided by values that have translated into character-virtues.

    Take ethics as an illustration. British doctors when interviewed about their training and practicing, “… complained about the over-estimation of compliance and the under-estimation of professional judgement.” (Symons, X. 2015)

    I believe that All the laws, rules, regulations, ethical principles in the world will not guarantee virtuous behaviour.” (Williams, G, Fox, P & Haarhoff, D. 2015)

    Organisations and projects should look at ethics from an agent-based perspective, not an action-based perspective (Oberlechner, T. 2007, citing Dobson). This of course requires individual development and maturation along a self-managed path of self-interest, meeting the expectations of others, then becoming principled through independent reasoning. (Oberlechner, T. 2007, citing Kohlberg, Levine, and Hewer). Of course, such maturing doesn’t happen overnight but can be role-modelled and applied in projects. Agent-based seeds are sewn.

  6. Taking the focus off people

    People carry out the work, so an over-emphasis on process, technology, over-planning and over-strategising, is unhelpful. A focus on people and relationships gets the job done, allows for upskilling, broadening, cross-functional appreciation, the development of an internal serving culture, and a way of becoming more customer and stakeholder-facing. It is people who produce the innovations, improved products, services, processes and technology applications, improved relationships with customers and other stakeholders. “The field of project management is one that has always been characterised by its joint emphasis on a blend of technical elements … coupled with its vital connections to behavioural and management concepts.” (Slevin, D & Pinto, J (2004) 

  7. Failure to harness diversity, real inclusion and genuine belonging

    Overcoming limiting differences (departmental, team, roles, ethnicity, gender, religious, thinking style) that could detract from a family and esprit de corps environment, and even result in conflict, is a key success factor for any project.

    “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of not belonging.”
    ~Mother Theresa

    Social scientist André Laurent, Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD “… offers useful guidelines which harness cultural diversity and shows decision makers around the world how differences can become a source of synergy and competitive advantage when they are recognised, understood and appreciated.” (Laurent, A. 2019)

    “Laurent discovered a fascinating phenomenon. In brief: the best teams rely on the difference and uniqueness of their members to create something better than can be produced by a mono-cultural team. But people who fear difference and put their energy into seeing differences negatively produce little of note.

    Concerted effort to bridge the productivity gap between best and worst is a critical challenge. It requires recognition that potentially, diverse group wisdom is greater than individual wisdom; team solutions, innovation and output is greater than individual output; collectives are more secure and powerful than individuals; adaption and adoption of change smoother. Diversity is a positive must.

    Every member must feel that they belong, share accountability and can contribute. That they are accepted, valued, respected and trusted by the other members.

    Failure to appreciate and harness the richness, power and value of difference can cause barriers, threats, irritation, friction and destructive behaviour. And promote a limiting culture of conformity.” (Williams, G; Fox, P & Haarhoff, D.  2015)   

  8. Insufficiently developed Project Managers

    Last year I convened an MSc in Project Management at a prominent university and was aghast to discover no mention of the potential power of projects to bring about wider organisational change in addition to their specifically assigned task.     

    Project Managers require training in being and in applying a benevolent and serving approach to leadership (that includes the components of self-emptying, larger thinking (metanoia), unconditional positive acceptance of employees while still being fair and firm, being adept at handling diversity, open to adventure and learning, skilled at activating reflection and story, and being able to get the job done!

    If we waited for all of this to be in place before initiating a project, then we might never have any projects! There must be a balance aimed at the project leader gaining mastery before and during the course of a project, aided by astute top leader mentoring and coaching.

  9. Punitive measures applied when projects are seen to have failed
  10. Kellogg points to the sort of scapegoating organizational culture that should not be project-based. Such cultures permit defence mechanisms like displacement and projection to be used as self-preservation and bullying tactics. Clearly, several other toxic behaviours will also be present.

    “For individuals who assume responsibility for assignments or projects that prove less than successful, they could find themselves isolated to what I call ‘organizational purgatory.’

    Organizational purgatory is a wasteland where experienced or up-and-coming leaders can find themselves if they are perceived as having failed or fallen short on a key project or assignment.” (Kellogg, R. 2019)

    Projects fail for various reasons, including a lack of effective sponsorship and championing. Such failure should be shared, lessons extracted, and new knowledge applied to cushion future projects from similar failure.

Top 5 tips for successful leveraging of project teams

Here are my top 5 suggestions for CEOs of organisations wanting to successfully expand a benevolent leadership culture, and leverage projects as incubators of spiritual leadership (a notion referred to in a previous article for Culture University (Williams, G. & Cooper, E. 2018).

  1. Learn to operate in benevolent leadership mode. Behave, apply, coach and train benevolent leadership. This requires ‘leaving the action’ and doing regular, deliberate inner work. (Sometimes, like the homicide chief in Richard Rayner’s Murder Book, busy leaders and managers are too busy to do anything else but be busy: “Reflection invited danger. Better and easier to be on top of the surfboard, where the action was, riding without thought to a shore your skill might help you reach....”  (Rayner, R. 1997) Reflection and contemplation (in a context of developing deeper mindfulness) results in better leadership action and results. This requires:
    • Self-emptying (kenosis), developing the larger mind (metanoia) and appreciating interconnectivity
  2. Don’t rely on unfounded, untested theory. An Imperative is to have a healthy balance of real live experience and formal learning and qualifications. In developing project leaders, major on coaching (where process is provided under the umbrella of valid experience and content), counselling, reflection practices, collective sense-making, decision-making and problem-solving.
  3. Blend bees and butterflies. To imbed and connect projects to the rest of the organisation, have natural checks and balances in place, ensure that projects are not ‘secret’ and hidden, enhance the probability of wider ownership, and success, and feed the culture change process, use the butterfly and bee approach. Project team members are bees – devoted to the hive of activity happening within the project. Wherever possible, they actively encourage visits by, progress sharing with and inputs from affected internal departments, external stakeholders and HR and IT (to the extent that these functions are not sufficiently embodied in the project membership). This is an open, accepting, inclusive technique.
  4. Harness diversity and democracy. Better results are sure to follow as wide-ranging a diversity, inclusion and belonging as is possible. Such composition of project teams is a necessity not a luxury. This can profitably be extended to include customers and other stakeholders, the capturing of their unique insights, their buy-in, world views and valid contributions to business process design and redesign, problem definition, change plan, solutions. Engaging with rather than ‘managing’ both internal and external stakeholders adds a wonderful, too-often-neglected resource to project teams. It also sets the tone for relationships and establishing agile-feedback loops in future. This goes a long way to establishing esprit de corps. Worsley offers a useful model which covers the project continuum from stakeholder-neutral to stakeholder-led engagement. (Worsley, L.M. 2017) In this sort of environment, the learning axe is kept sharp as people learn from each other’s knowledge and discoveries as the project proceeds and excitement and passion are transplanted to the wider organisation.
  5. Trust. Think of trust as an increasingly valuable asset in an increasingly divisive and non-collaborative world. Give your trust to project teams. Ensure that sponsors run interference for them when needed. Pop in frequently as a ‘butterfly.’ Encourage the sharing of story at all levels inside and outside of the project team (an Ubuntu process that includes metaphor, imagery, symbol, myth, archetype, anecdote …), that when used appropriately (not to persuade or convince but to share and allow insights to arrive) adds greatly to building trust. This helps project leaders to ensure that the spirit of the project team is maintained or enhanced in order to improve performance (Aronson et al., 2001).
  • trusting that relationship building does lead to improved performance results
  • having a process for walking the talk and converting stated values to consistently displayed virtues
  • widening the notion of ‘customer’ – internal and external – to include suppliers, citizens and other stakeholders (especially in the sustainability arena)
  • utilising advanced conversational processes (not meetings!) to guide culture change deftly and speedily (especially in a world of rapid, turbulent change on many fronts) 


Project teams within organisations, irrespective of their nature or scale, can be used to shift wider culture and carry new ways of relating and working back into the organisation. (Gareis, R. 2010)

Indeed, failure to go to required lengths as outlined above, would be a huge opportunity gone to waste. 

The cascading of esprit de corps and positive cultural elements into the wider organisation is also made possible by the nature of benevolent leadership and spirituality that influences individuals.

According to Milliman et al, “spirituality can be conceptualised as three levels of engagement; individual, group, and organizational” (Milliman et al., 2003).

These are described as:

  • Individual level – Meaningful work
    • Enjoy work
    • Energised by work
    • Work gives personal meaning and purpose
  • Group level – Sense of community
    • Sense of connection with co-workers
    • Employees support each other
    • Linked with a common purpose
  • Organization level – Alignment with organization values
    • Feel connected to organization’s goals
    • Identify with organization’s mission and values
    • Organization cares about employees (Milliman et al., 2003: 428)

An outside-in and inside-out dynamic

The lessons from a recent (strategic rewards and recognition multinational) global research into key culture trends for 2019, are that engagement improves dramatically when employees in conducive workplace environments experience belonging, feel appreciated and respected, find meaning in work relationships and work, have access to technology that facilitates and enhances their connectivity and relationships, share and collaborate in project settings, receive regular feedback in frequent one-on-one communicating. (O. C. Tanner 2019)

I am confident that sound project management meets all of these engagement experiences. Projects can provide the needed psychologically-safe space for learning and personal growth (in confidence and competence), promote connectedness and bonding as members work closely together towards clear goals, and promote a sense of worthiness that emanates from being involved in satisfying and worthwhile activity. (Sense and Fernando, 2011)

It is arguably easier for project team leaders – rather than busy line managers and leaders – to influence or bring about their team member’s transformation. And project team members carry their learning and development back into the wider organisation.


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About the Author

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Graham Williams

Graham Williams, CMC, B.Com Hons, B.A. is a Cape Town-based certified management consultant, thought provoker, executive coach and author who has worked in over 40 countries around the World. An essential component of his ‘motivational fingerprint’ is to overcome severe organisational blockages by installing creative, healing solutions – from concept to implementation. He focuses on the use of narrative, anecdote and metaphor as critical contributors to successful business interventions and has written or co-authored a number of business books.