Date of Award

2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Education

Program

Leadership PhD

First Advisor

Duane Covrig

Second Advisor

Shirley Freed

Third Advisor

Jennifer Tucker

Abstract

Problem

This study explored how Project Managers (PMs) in the Department of Defense (DoD) come to understand, develop, and apply self-awareness in leading their projects. The DoD invests heavily in developing their project leaders by providing training, experiences, developmental assignments, and other tools such as self-assessments presumably to help them lead more authentically and become more self-aware as a way to improve project management. Despite this investment, it is unclear how self-awareness is actually developed in PMs and integrated into their leadership practice. In view of the importance of self-awareness in leadership, more understanding is needed on how self-awareness is being understood and made use of by DoD PMs.

Purpose

This study sought to describe how PMs in the DoD come to understand, develop, and integrate self-awareness—as a key component of authentic leadership—in leading their projects. This data, viewed within the authentic leadership construct (Gardner, Avolio, & Walumbwa, 2005) promises to inform project leaders on potentially more effective leadership practices.

Scope and Design

The study’s conceptual framework was based on Authentic Leadership: a transparently connected relationship between leaders and followers, encompassing a high level of self-awareness with internalized beliefs and moral values (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). In this research, use of a multiple case study design guided the data collection process to qualitatively explore the perceptions and experiences of project managers as they develop self-awareness and use it in leading their projects. Individual PMs who completed the Defense Acquisition University’s Program Manager Course (PMT 401), each representing a case, were purposefully selected and administered the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire (ALQ) to further identify those leaders with a high level of self-awareness (2.5 or above on the ALQ’s self-awareness scale) resulting in a group of 24 PMs for telephonic interviews. A professional demographic survey was also administered to collect background and contextual information about the participants. A researcher’s journal was kept throughout the study to record researcher reflections, process, and unexpected discoveries. Following collection of this qualitative data, analysis using both manual and automated tools (i.e., NVivo, Excel) resulted in the study’s findings for interpretation within the authentic leadership conceptual framework.

Findings

In terms of developing leader self-awareness, participants revealed that three elements contributed most significantly to their growth: the influence of others, chiefly within the DoD; the experiences they’d had as leaders in the Department; and the insights gained from intentional, thoughtful self-assessment throughout their careers. The most common development theme shared by participants was the influence other people had on them as they grew as leaders. It was especially remarkable that PMs attributed prior commanders and other direct leaders in the DoD as the most important influences on their own leadership identity and style. Many mentioned the formative experiences they’d had early in their careers in crucial assignments, deployments, and decisive missions as enduring influences on their leadership development. Lastly, in terms of self-assessment insights, participants recalled that it was through self-assessment that they were able to reflect on themselves as leaders, and on the interactions with others. They reported gaining insights on personality preferences and leadership styles. However, participants found deeper meanings about self and identity, their purpose, and leadership perspectives only when those self-assessment insights were actuated within leadership relationships and experiences.

Three strong themes emerged from the interviews about how participants applied leader self-awareness to managing projects. Many spoke about cultivating a warfighter focus in their leadership purpose. They spoke of deep concern for the needs of the soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines in the field. Participants also spoke of their awareness of performance as leaders in relationships with their teams and project stakeholders. Through the transitions and change they encountered in their DoD careers they gained understanding of their “strengths” and “weaknesses”, leadership traits, management styles, and leadership approaches. Finally, PMs in the study spoke about leading authentically: understanding who they were as leaders; modeling desired behaviors; putting people at the center of their leadership practice, that is, taking an interest in those they lead while training, developing, and mentoring them and maintaining an openness which fosters honesty and transparency in return. Leaders in the study also expressed that to lead authentically, one must adapt to context & situation while maintaining a consistency between one’s self-identity and leadership persona.

Conclusions

Development of leader self-awareness and the application of that self-awareness appear to merge naturally in practice. It is in relationship with others and within a context of purpose that one develops, applies, and nurtures self-awareness. It is a reciprocal process. For the participants in this study, it is in leadership practice and especially during times of professional transitions and change that self-awareness is developed and applied; not, remarkably, through self-assessment, reflection or inward searching alone. Authentic Leadership with strong self-awareness appears to emerge when there is a strong guiding purpose, positive leadership influences, and opportunities for strengths and weaknesses to be examined within the responsibilities of each new situation. The results of this study can inform the leadership community on how DoD PMs integrate and use authentic leadership, specifically a keen self-awareness, as they lead their project teams. By understanding the development, integration to self, and application of authentic leadership in project management, the next generation of project managers and leaders may profit from employing the construct’s principles in their leadership practice. Further, findings can aid researchers as well as practitioners in how authentic leadership development can best be fostered in a space of purposive and engaged responsibility.

Subject Area

Self-consciousness (Awareness), Leadership, Project managers

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