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Balancing vertical and horizontal leadership in projects: Empirical studies from Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden

Nathalie Drouin (ESG UQAM, Montreal, Canada)
Ralf Müller (BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway)
Shankar Sankaran (School of the Built Environment, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia)
Anne Live Vaagaasar (BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 2 July 2018

Issue publication date: 15 August 2018




The purpose of this paper is twofold: to identify how horizontal leaders (within project teams) execute their leadership task in the context of balanced leadership; and to pinpoint scenarios that can occur when horizontal leaders are identified and empowered by the vertical leader (senior or project managers) and a project task is handed over to them to lead. This research is based on the concept of balanced leadership, which conceptualizes leadership as a dynamic, situation-dependent transition of leadership authority from a vertical leader (like a project manager) to a horizontal leader (a project team member) and back again, in order to contribute positively to a project’s success. Balanced leadership consists of five events (nomination, identification, empowerment, horizontal leadership and its governance, and transition). This paper focuses on the fourth event, and its specific aspect of leadership distribution between horizontal and vertical leader. This event begins when a team member(s) accepts the empowerment to assume the role of horizontal leader. This paper explicitly links the leadership style of the vertical leader based on Frame’s (1987) leadership styles and the nature of decisions taken by both the vertical and horizontal leaders to deliver the project.


The method used for this paper is the qualitative phase of a sequential mixed methods (qualitative-quantitative) study. Data were collected through case studies in four different countries, using a maximum variety sampling approach. Data collection was through interviews of vertical leaders (senior leaders who were often sponsors of projects or members of senior management or project managers) and horizontal leaders (team leaders or members) in a variety of industry sectors. Data analysis was done through initial coding and constant comparison to arrive at themes. Thematic analysis was used to gain knowledge about the split of leadership and decision-making authority between the horizontal and vertical leader(s).


The results show that for Canadian and Australian projects, a combination of autocratic and democratic leadership styles were used by vertical leaders. In the case of Scandinavian projects, a democratic leadership style has been observed. Linked to these leadership styles, the horizontal decision making is predominantly focused on technical decisions and to daily task decisions to deliver the project. Delegation occurs most of the time to one specific team member, but occasionally to several team members simultaneously, for them to work collaboratively on a given issue.

Research limitations/implications

The paper supports a deeper investigation into a leadership theory, by validating one particular event of the balanced leadership theory, which is based on Archer’s (1995) realist social theory. The findings from this paper will guide organizations to facilitate an effective approach to balancing the leadership roles between vertical and horizontal leaders in their projects. The findings can also be used to develop horizontal leaders to take up more responsibilities in projects.


The originality lies in the new leadership theory called balanced leadership, and its empirical validation. It is the first study on the leadership task distribution between vertical and horizontal leadership in projects. Its value is new insights, which allow practitioners to develop practices to find and empower the best possible leader at any given time in the project and academics to develop a more dynamic and, therefore, more realistic theory on leadership as it unfolds in projects.



Conflict of interest: there is no potential conflict of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this paper.

This publication has been developed and reproduced with a grant from Project Management Institute and is copyrighted material of and owned by, Project Management Institute, Copyright 2018. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.


Drouin, N., Müller, R., Sankaran, S. and Vaagaasar, A.L. (2018), "Balancing vertical and horizontal leadership in projects: Empirical studies from Australia, Canada, Norway and Sweden", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 986-1006.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Project Management Institute

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