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  • Writer's pictureMegan Penhoet

Transformational Leadership for Sustainability in Green Construction Projects

Sustainability leadership is recognized as essential in green construction projects. A skilled project manager is central to the success of sustainable construction projects. Transformational Leadership factors have been empirically tested and are found to positively influence sustainable building projects. Green building project managers are challenged to reduce material waste, make use of quality sustainable materials and complete projects within the available budget and expected timeframe. This article offers a literature review identifying ten peer reviewed articles published between 2010 and 2020 where current findings reveal that transformational leadership is particularly effective in green construction projects due to their complex, dynamic and innovative nature.

Keywords: Sustainable Project Managers, Transformational Leadership, Sustainable Construction, Green Building, Project Manager Leadership, Construction Innovation and Sustainability, Leadership for Innovation.


Leadership for complexity and oriented toward sustainability requires specific competences. This article presents a literature review on the essential project management elements found to be consistent with the foundational tenets of Transformational Leadership (TL). Project managers’ ability to influence project success has been well researched. The relevant Transformational Leadership (TL) factors are the “The Four I’s”: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration (Northouse, 2014). TL theory emphasizes ideals, inspiration, innovations and individual concerns as the core competencies of the transformational leader, who for this review’s purposes is the project manager (PM) (Northouse, 2015).

The construction industry is moving towards a more sustainable model and PM success is a key component. Therefore, researching new ways to reduce project failure is relevant. Authors Hwang and Ng (2013) have examined how knowledge and skills in project management can minimize challenges specific to green construction projects. While other studies such as those of Bakri and Abbas (2020), Iqbal et al. (2019), Tabassi and Abu Bakaer (2010), and Keegan and Den Hartog (2004) focused on examining the impact of TL in construction projects. Tabassi et al. (2016) also highlights the importance of PM leadership competences for green building projects. Since there is no single study that integrates the use of TL with project management concepts throughout green building lifecycle stages, this literature review may help narrow the research gap.

Sustainable construction, or Green Building (GB) addresses multiple UN SDGs and especially goal 11 “Sustainable Cities and Communities”. 17% of SDGs are dependent on the construction industry (Goubran, 2019). Consequently, the UN encouraged the GB industry to increase sustainability measures (Tabassi, 2014). The PM’s central role in GB, in turn, influenced the LEED Rating System (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to include PM leadership as a key tool (Tabassi, 2014).

The “projectification” of society has been referred to as a paradigm shift (Jensen, 2016). Projects allow for reduced complexity, are short- term oriented and results focused. These qualities are at odds with sustainability goals featuring long-term orientation, high complexity and a life cycle orientation (Silvius, 2017). Moreover, as projectification increases, PM leadership is scrutinized more closely. Projects are estimated to be 30% of the global economy (Iqbal, 2019), therefore demand for accurate analysis drives research into PM to more accurately predict project return on investment (ROI). GB projects feature high project complexity, the need for innovation and creativity, a temporary nature and correlative potential for low subordinate project commitment (Müller and Turner, 2010). Researchers have studied GB PM leadership style where Transformational Leadership (TL) has been revealed to be most effective leadership style (Tabassi, 2014).


Green Building (GB) projects have high uncertainty, low project member commitment, and limited work contracts that can result in low trust and low social relations (Tyssen, 2014). There is a tension between the imperative for successful GB projects and the endemic uncertainty of projects. This challenge can be mitigated by expert transformational leadership. Therefore, the problem is defined as follows:

This literature review examines characteristics of transformational leadership addressing the project manager’s imperative to influence and transform subordinates to meet the sustainability challenges of green building projects.

The research is categorized according to its focus on (1) TL as a means for project managers to achieve success, (2) TL supporting sustainability or subordinate participation in projects, or (3) TL supporting innovation in construction. See Table 2 for an overview of the categories and reviewed literature.

The categories highlight the contributions to project management in general and more specifically, leadership for sustainability in project management. The literature can be linked to GB leadership for sustainable or innovative project management despite any differences in focus.

Finally, this article explores characteristics of transformational leadership theory applicable to the unique leadership challenges faced by project managers in green building projects. Therefore the research questions are as follows:

  1. Does TL contribute to the success of sustainable building construction?

  2. What specific TL traits or characteristics from the “Four I’s” are essential to increase GB project success?

  3. How is TL relevant in solving GB project challenges?

Sample design and literature criteria

This article explores key intersections between green building (GB) project management and key components of transformational leadership theory. Using, and Google Scholar key search terms included Boolean combinations of: “sustainable project management and leadership”, “green building and transformational leadership”, “transformational leadership and project management”, “project management leadership”, and “construction innovation and sustainability”.

Using a literature matrix, core themes and intersections were tracked using the framework in Tables 1 and 2 (Bryman, 2012). From the initial search of over 50 articles from 2004-2020, many were excluded as they failed to meet the criteria stated below. General criteria for literature selection included the following:

1. The literature describes aspects of TL and leadership competences in (GB) construction projects.

2. The literature connects one or more aspects of transformational leadership among GB projects and innovation and creativity among subordinates.

3. The literature addresses leadership challenges of project managers of projects with sustainability components.

4. The literature is relevant and applicable to green building projects with a sustainability mandate or innovation focus.

Empirical material and analysis

Transformational Leadership and Successful Green Building Projects

Transformational leadership (TL) empowers and inspires employees to become self-reliant and innovative as they support organizational and project changes (White, 2018; Tabassi & Abu Bakaer, 2010). TL is a process that transforms or changes individuals involving assessing their needs and motives while valuing them (Northouse, 2015). The “I’s” that apply to project managers in GB are those that inspire team members, generate team intellectual stimulation, and that convey individual team member consideration as they reach project and personal goals. Bakri and Abbas (2020) found a positive relationship between these TL characteristics and achieving sustainability in property development. Moreover, several studies support the idea that TL increases success in sustainable building construction projects through the application of these three motivational, stimulating and consideration skills (Iqbal et al., 2019; Shafique & Mollaolgu, 2019; Kura, 2016).

Kura (2016) revealed a significant positive relationship between TL and the project team’s green behaviour with the mediating role of project team members’ individual environmental awareness. In most cases, it is the project team’s green behaviour in combination with TL factors that makes sustainable building construction projects succesful (Kura, 2016). Shafique and Mollaolgu (2019) found project managers employing TL acted both as a role model while attending to team members with great care. These project leaders give team members the opportunity to share their personal opinions and intellectual project ideas. It is through such inspiring leadership, utilizing role modeling, encouragement, strong communication and individual consideration that the fostering of shared ideas among project team members grows (Farnsworth, 2019). TL can therefore contribute to the success of green building projects (Shafique & Mollaolgu, 2019; Senaratne & Hewamanage, 2015; Contractor et al., 2012).

As explained by Avolio, Walumbwa and Weber (2009), shared leadership in this context is a departure from traditional top-down leadership. Instead, it is a collective and well-distributed leadership among the project team members. According to Widjaja (2016), through teamwork, project managers maximize the team’s group performance in GB construction. Often, project managers’ ability to work with the team is one of the most important project manager compentencies driving success in sustainable building projects (Powl & Skitmore, 2005). In general, project stakeholders are not limited to the project sponsor but also include the key suppliers, architects, engineers, contractors and sub-contractors (Shafique & Mollaolgu, 2019; Widjaja, 2016). By encouraging the stakeholders to become self-sufficient, the application of TL contributes to GB project success (Widjaja, 2016).

Specific TL Traits

To achieve sustainable building project success, there are specific TL traits the project managers should possess (Iqbal et al., 2019; Shafique & Mollaolgu, 2019). Based on empirical investigation results derived from 125 project managers studying the impact TL to manage sustainable projects in Pakistan, Iqbal et al. (2019) revealed six (6) specific TL PM traits. These include being able to inspire employees to have a shared vision, the ability to challenge employees when handling project management processes, serving as a good role model, empowering their subordinates, providing individual consideration when managing people, and being more empathetic when dealing with the project stakeholders. Aside from winning the trust and support of the project stakeholders, Shafique and Mollaolgu (2019) acknowledge the importance of being a role model. This particular TL trait enables the PM to influence and inspire the rest of the team members. For example, to encourage material waste reduction, the PM can create a shared vision amongst the team members and act as a good role model when it comes to recycling used construction materials (Iqbal, Zaman, Siddiqui, & Imran, 2019). Overall, Iqbal et al. (2019) describes the project manager’s shared vision and use of effective communication skills as the driving force to make the practice of recycling of used materials a reality in projects.

According to Lech (2013), successful project managers are those who are able to complete the project within the available budget and within the expected time-frame. To this end, conservation and procurement efforts affect project success (Haghighat & Kim, 2009). Since purchasing errors can lead to material waste and project delays, Haghighat and Kim (2009, p. 293) highlight miscommunications between the PM, engineers, architects and the purchasing manager as well as inadequate project planning as being common GB project challenges. Therefore, in addition to managerial and intellectual competences, Tabassi et al. (2016) discusses the importance of PM effective communication skills.

The research findings of Tabassi et al. (2016) with regard to the leadership traits project managers should possess is supported by Müller and Turner (2010) and Dulewicz and Higgs (2005) studies. In addition to being engaging, involving and goal-oriented, Müller and Turner (2010) discuss the importance of IQ-related traits such as critical thinking and EQ-related traits such as motivation, the ability to influence other people and conscientiousness as contributors to a successful project. On the other hand, Dulewicz and Higgs (2005) highlighted the importance of being goal-oriented, engaging and involving. (See Table I – Specific TL Traits and Characteristics below)

Relevance of TL in Solving Challenges Caused by Complexity in Green Building Projects

Major challenges involved in managing complex green building projects include completing the project within the available budget and expected time-frame (Sang et al., 2018; Widjaja, 2016; Tagaza & Wilson, 2004). Aside from reducing the amount of energy consumed in building construction and transportation, project managers are also challenged to reduce material waste when purchasing and using sustainable construction materials (Gordon, 2020; Tam & Le, 2019). There are other significant challenges involved in complex green building projects. These challenges include risk, wherein the cost of sustainable construction materials would increase over time, technical problems or difficulty, the risk of having differences or delays in the delivery of project contracts, wasting excessive time in project planning, the approval and implementation of green construction practice and process, the lack of knowledge about modern green technologies, and the lack of communication amongst the project stakeholders (Tagaza & Wilson, 2004). (See Table II – Common Challenges in Complex Green Building Projects below)

While TL traits and characteristics are useful in solving the aforementioned complex management challenges in green building projects, there are limits to what TL can do to ensure that project managers effectively solve these issues. With this in mind, it is crucial on the part of project managers to combine knowledge and skills in project management with traits and characteristics related to TL. Some of these characteristics include teamwork, the ability to create a vision, the ability to communicate with other people, and critical thinking (Bakri & Abbas, 2020; Iqbal et al., 2019; Senaratne & Hewamanage, 2015; Hwang & Ng, 2013).

When solving challenges in complex projects, the role of project management theories differs from the scope of TL. For instance, internal conflicts due to miscommunication can be managed and easily resolved when using TL traits and characteristics (Bakri & Abbas, 2020; Iqbal et al., 2019; Keegan & Den Hartog, 2004). Using effective communication skills, project managers can easily coordinate with project external and internal stakeholders when solving problems in construction quality and processes (Bakri & Abbas, 2020; Rose, 2012). Overall, TL knowledge is necessary when it comes to motivating and managing a group of project team members to achieve the project deliverables, objectives and goal (Tabassi et al., 2016).

Discussion and Conclusion

Project managers have the potential to positively contribute to sustainable human settlement (SDG 11) and to influence project subordinates to innovate, collaborate and excel for greater project sustainability performance. TL is regarded as a powerful leadership style to lead projects characterized by novelty, complexity and uncertainty such as GB projects. However, the temporary and heterogeneous nature of GB projects carries with it a potential “authority gap”. Keegan’s (2004) studies of project managers finds that the temporary nature of projects strains the PM-subordinate relationship. Moreover, Hwang’s (2103) analysis of the top ten challenges project managers face on GB projects highlights the need for skills that can be addressed through TL core characteristics.

TL can contribute to the success of sustainable building construction and can be explored further. There are limitations as to what TL traits and characteristics can do in making sustainable building construction projects successful.

This literature review studies how highly dynamic GB projects whose environmental impact can be great can be positively affected by TL’s specific strengths. Project sponsors who hire TL trained project managers can expect that key performance indicators will be positively affected under such leadership according to this literature review findings. To increase the success rate of completing green building projects within the available budget and expected time-frame, it is crucial on the part of the project managers to combine the use of TL traits with project management techniques. More research into other connections between TL and subordinate performance, commitment and innovation in sustainable construction is needed to uncover and comprehend how the interrelations between TL contributes to GB projects. Specifically, an avenue exists for research into TL and its effect on team innovations where impact can potentially be measured and valued as a by-product of GB projects.

Aside from being able to complete the project within the available budget and within the expected time-frame, project managers who manage green building projects are challenged to reduce material waste as they select and make use of good quality sustainable materials that are recyclable and reusable. In addition to improving procurement efficiencies, project managers should also reduce the amount of energy they consume in building construction and transportation. TL can contribute to project managers achieving these goals in GB. However, there are limits to the impact TL traits and characteristic can have on GB projects. To increase the success rate of completing green building projects within the available budget and expected time-frame, it is crucial that project managers combine the use of TL traits with project management techniques.


Several gaps were identified in the literature discussion, suggesting that further research is necessary to substantiate any relationship between sustainable building project outcomes resulting from TL adopted by project managers. This literature review states that there are intersections that can account for specific connections, however this argument has not been researched sufficiently in the literature and therefore could be criticized for being speculative. Research findings presented in this study imply that TL alone will not lead to a successful project completion.


To avoid unnecessary project delays, project managers should continue to rely on the use of traditional project management techniques.


Secondary research method was applied in this study. Therefore, research findings presented in this study may not be applicable to a specific case on green building project management. Therefore, future researchers who are interested in obtaining firsthand data on a specific case study should consider the use of primary research methods.


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