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Linking humble leadership and
project success: the moderating
role of top management support
with mediation of team-building
Mudassar Ali, Zhang Li and Salim Khan
School of Management, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, China
Syed Jamal Shah
Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University,
Shanghai, China, and
School of Management, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, China
Purpose –This paper aims to examine the impact of humble leadership on project success. The authors
propose that such an effect is mediated by team-building, and top management support moderates the direct
relationship (humble leadership and project success) as well as an indirect relationship throughteam-building.
Design/methodology/approach –Data were collected from 337 individuals employed in the information
technology sector of Pakistan. A two-step approach consisting confirmatory factor analysis and structural
equation modeling was used for analysis. To examine conditional direct and indirect effects, the authors
utilized model 8 in PROCESS.
Findings –The results showed that humble leadership is positively related to project success. Furthermore,
team-building partially mediates the relationship between humble leadership and project success. Moreover,
top management support was anticipated to have a moderating effect on the direct and indirect link (via team-
building) between humble leadership and project success.
Originality/value –Drawing on the conservation of resources theory, this study found that how humble
leadership is vital for project success, and thus, extends the utility of the concept of humble leadership to the
Keywords Leadership behavior, Project success, Top management, Project team effectiveness
Paper type Research paper
Over a few decades, project success has been the main focus of project management literature
(Ika et al., 2012). Among the dimension of the research that has increased our understanding
of the factors critically influencing project success is leadership style (Ahmed et al., 2013;
Hassan et al., 2017;Podg
orska and Pichlak, 2019;Turner and M€
uller, 2005). However, several
aspects of the leadership styles influencing project success have yet to be explored, as
researchers suggest that scholars should focus the role of all aspects of leadership with
project success, instead of just focusing a few (Tyssen et al., 2014;Yu et al., 2018). Among the
leadership styles, humble leadership has been defined in terms of three main characteristics:
(1) willing to view oneself accurately, (2) an appreciation of others’strengths and (3) openness
to new ideas and feedback (Owens et al., 2013). Although scholars have emphasized that
Funding: This research is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71772052)
Conflict of interest statement and authors’declaration: On behalf of all authors, I am declaring that all
authors have seen and approved the final version of the manuscript. They warrant that the article is
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 30 January 2020
Revised 6 May 2020
Accepted 19 June 2020
International Journal of Managing
Projects in Business
© Emerald Publishing Limited
humility is obligatory excellence for project managers (Bri
ere et al., 2015), yet up to our
knowledge, no research is conducted previously to empirically examine the positive impact of
humble leadership on project success. Although, previous research provides some evidence
about the role of humble leadership in project success. For instance, humble leadership
fosters the adaptive strengths within the team they lead, which ultimately enhances project
team performance (Owens and Hekman, 2016) toward the successful completion of the
project. Therefore, this research aims to examine that humble leadership has a positive
impact on project success.
In building a model linking humble leadership and project success, we propose
team-building as a mediating mechanism that potentially explains the relationship between
leader humility and project success. Team-building has been defined as a set of four
cognitions possessed by the individual members of a team, which include goal-setting, role
clarifications, interpersonal relations and problem-solving (Klein et al., 2009). Aga et al. (2016)
stressed the need for empirical research to highlight the role of team-building practices in a
project environment. Besides, it has also pointed out that the way team-building helps
employees to perform effectively has received little attention in the team-building literature
(Shuffler et al., 2011). Ou et al. (2014) identify humble leadership as a capable command point
for enhancing team processes, including team-building. Following up on these calls, this
study assumes that behaviors of humble leaders enable team-building interventions that are
reflected in project success.
Besides, we propose the top management support as the boundary conditions across
which the effect of humble leadership on project success varies. A project manager with
humility, like leadership quality, cannot achieve the successful accomplishment of a
project until the top management of the organization supports him/her. Existing theories
and research indicate that both the leadership role of project manager and the support of
upper management are simultaneously crucial for the high performance of a project
(Kanwal et al., 2017) and team-building (Baiden et al., 2006). Although previous studies
have described that top management support is essential in different phases of projects
(Ong and Bahar, 2019), yet scholars have rarely considered the simultaneous role of project
manager and senior management support in project success (Maqbool and Sudong, 2018)
andteam-building(Ahmed et al., 2016). Top management is responsible for strategy
development, who must have explicit knowledge and expertise about the prevailing
situations of the organization. Senior management is responsible for developing
organizational strategies and has the required knowledge and expertise about the
current conditions of the organization.
Given the above discussion, the current study presents and empirically tests a
theoretical model proposing the relationship between humble leadership and project
success with team-building as mediating mechanism while the support of top management
moderating this effect. Theoretically, our model is rooted in the conservation of resources
theory (Hobfoll, 1989). The central tenet of this theory is that people strive to create,
protect, maintain and retain resources. Resources are those objects, conditions,
characteristics or energies that are valued by the people (Hobfoll, 2001), and what is
more detrimental to an individual is the loss of such resources (Hobfoll, 1989). The
conservation of resources theory suggests that leaders serve as an essential resource that
further creates and conserve resources for his/her organization by efficiently utilizing
organizational resources (employees) (Mao et al., 2019). Applying the assumptions of this
theory to the conceptual model of this study, we assume that organizational leaders,
through their humility trait, ensure the efficient utilization of resources in the form of an
effective team-building process to gain further resources by successfully accomplishing a
project. Drawing further on the assumptions of “caravans passageways”in the
conservation of resources theory (Hobfoll, 2011a), we propose that a humble leader
cannot efficiently utilize and build the organizational resource until he/she is provided
such an environment required for using his/her skills. Top management support acts as a
resource caravan passageway (i.e. a mechanism that helps to channel, funnel and supply
resources) that creates a favorable organizational environment that facilitates humble
leaders to achieve and active team-building process and project success.
Humble leadership has been defined as an interpersonal quality of a leader reflected in three
main characteristics, namely, willingness to view oneself accurately, an appreciation of
others’strengths and openness to new ideas and feedback (Owens and Hekman, 2012).
Conceived as an interpersonal trait, humble leadership is a characteristic of a leader that
followers identify during social relationships. Earlier studies have established numerous
humble leaders’behavioral characters. For instance, humble leadership demonstrates a
willingness to assess oneself without negative or positive exaggeration, indicating that the
leader has an accurate, non-defensive and rational self-view (Exline and Geyer, 2004;
Tangney, 2000). Humble leaders respect the value and efforts of followers and grant others’
strengths with an open heart (Jeung and Yoon, 2016). Humble leaders are open to new ideas,
advice and information from their subordinates, showing his/her to be receptive to others,
which create an environment characterized by cooperation, confidence, creativity and
accomplishment (Rego et al., 2019). Humble leaders provide the most respectful approach in
dealing with their followers by showing a friendly attitude toward followers and looking for
guidance and encouraging followers to remove power distance (Jeung and Yoon, 2018).
Humble leaders facilitate a comfortable zone for employees who could openly discuss their
problems (Liu et al., 2017).
Humble leadership and project success
Research has found several positive workplace outcomes of humble leadership, including job
performance, team innovation, follower creativity and employees’voice behavior (Lin et al.,
2019;Liu et al., 2017;Rego et al., 2017;Wang et al., 2018a). Humble leaders are critical in
enabling the team members to perform to their full potential both at the individual and the
group level (Argandona, 2015). Humble leaders identify the needs of the team members at an
individual level and address their concerns (Kesebir, 2014). This may not only remove hurdles
every member of a team is facing in his/her work but also encourage the team members
regarding their work and create confidence that their leader is there to help (Liu et al., 2017).
At the group level, a vital job of humble leadership is to provide a cooperative environment to
the team members where they can collaborate, share knowledge and come up with solutions
to problems that they are facing during the project execution (Owens and Hekman, 2016).
Such a collaborative environment fosters the performance of the team members and ensures
the effective implementation of the project without disrupting its normal flow (Burke et al.,
2006). Additionally, the team members naturally attached to humble leaders because of the
leader’s active contribution to the project, granting freedom and autonomy to the team
members and giving importance to every team member (Chiu et al., 2016). Inspired by the
degree of freedom, the team members consider themselves as key drivers of project success
(Lin et al., 2019), who may work to their full potential to accomplish a project.
Additionally, according to Walsh et al. (2014), the leadership role can be described as a
resource that supports the organization to create and conserve the resource pool through
developing the followers. The phenomenon of creating and preserving organizational
resources is known as the conservation of resources (Hobfoll, 1989), which has recently
become vital in the field of organizational psychology. Conservation of resources suggests
that those with a reliable resource pool are the most “resource secured”and capable of
developing their resources reservoir (Hobfoll, 2001). We believe that humility is a crucial
personal resource of a leader who invests it in enhancing followers’faith and helping them to
create an atmosphere of cooperation and coordination that ultimately results in project
success (i.e. resource gain). Overall, this whole discussion suggests that the humility of a team
leader through his/her positive interpersonal quality may boost the performance of a working
team, which ultimately leads to the successful accomplishment of a project. Therefore we
H1. Humble leadership is positively related to project success.
Mediating role of team-building
Team-building is a management technique used for improving the efficiency and
performance of a workgroup and which mainly consists of four processes, including
goal-setting, developing interpersonal relations, clarifying roles and employing
problem-solving techniques (Klein et al., 2009;Salas et al., 1999). Goal-setting involves
defining and setting the goals and objectives of the project by defining the tasks and giving a
timeframe (Salas et al., 2004). Role clarification entails clarifying individual-role expectations,
group norms and shared responsibilities of team members (Klein et al., 2009). The
interpersonal process involves keeping positive relationships and resolving conflicts among
team members (Sen
ecal et al., 2008). Problem-solving emphasizes the identification of
significant problems in a team’s tasks and subsequently enhancing the task-related skills of
the team members to resolve that problem (Misra and Srivastava, 2018).
Previous studies provide arguments to support the role of a project manager’s humility in
the team-building process in all of its four elements. First, leader humility reflects a shared
mental model of those who have the expertise and skills of creating a collective goal-oriented
environment for the team (Li et al., 2019), which allows team members to define and achieve
the team goals collectively. Second, a humble leader tends to enhance the meaningfulness of
work by helping an employee understands the importance of his or her contribution to
organizational (Rego et al., 2017), which gives the sense to subordinates of understanding the
role clarification and has an impact on organizational outcomes (Jeung and Yoon, 2016).
Third, a humble leader because of asking feedback from team members removes
bureaucratic constraints and enhances followers’confidence and competence (Wang et al.,
2018a), which is closely related to the interpersonal process of team-building. Fourth, humble
leaders acknowledge the contribution of subordinates and provide the sense of autonomy to
team members through power delegation (Naseer et al., 2019), which enables assistants to
make their own decisions to solve the problems and perform the tasks (Chen et al., 2018). In
addition, effective project leadership is required to enhance team commitment by cultivating
a positive attitude and climate that leads to project success (Kerzner, 2017;PMI, 2013), which
could be provided by a humble leader. Moreover, the positive interpersonal quality of a
humble leader inspires team members to achieve collective goals with visible enthusiasm and
by creating team synergy (Burke et al., 2006;Sohmen, 2013).
Previous research has also highlighted the significant impact of the efficient team-building
process on project success. According to Shuffler et al. (2018), the goal-setting component of
team-building introduces team members to a target-setting framework that requires action
planning to find ways to achieve these targets, improve problem-solving skills and motivate
the team toward achieving the objectives. Team members with predefined roles are expected
to gain a better understanding of their and others’respective roles and duties within the group
(Salas et al., 1999), which has a significant impact on project success (Sohmen, 2013). The
interpersonal process involves enhancement in team members’interpersonal skills, including
mutual supportiveness, communication and information sharing (LePine et al., 2008). As such,
the relationship among the team members become stronger in terms of sharing the same
vision and objectives (Cunha et al., 2018;Potnuru et al., 2019;Shah Syed et al., 2019), which
mobilizes a joint effort toward achieving the project goals. The problem-solving component of
the team-building process involves the identification of significant problems in the team’s
efforts required to enhance task-related skills (Lacerenza et al., 2018). Additionally,
considering as an overall concept, team-building is the intervening process in which team
members identify the significant problems, generate relevant solution, engage in problem-
solving and action planning (implement and evaluate), making the team members acceptable
toward the challenging tasks, and come up with the novel solutions (Beebe and Masterson,
2014;Chiang et al., 2014;Locke and Latham, 2002). In turn, all of these are important for
organizational success (Hughes et al., 2018;Scott and Bruce, 1994). Project team members
often work independently and outside the organizational chain of command. This implies that
autonomous, full-time and successful team-building in terms of goal-setting, interpersonal
processes, role clarification and problem-solving can lead to project success through
developing the relevant attitudes, values, problem-solving techniques and interpersonal and
group methods required for the successful completion of the project (Aga et al., 2016).
The above discussion suggests that a humble leader leads the followers to accomplish a
project by stimulating an efficient team-building process. Therefore, team building acts as an
underlying mechanism explaining the effect of humble leadership on project success. Our
argument for the mediating effect of team building is also rooted in the resource conservation
theory (Hobfoll, 2011b), which suggests that personal or job-related resources foster the
creation and retention of more resources. Thus, making a positive resource gains approach
toward the notion of a humble leader, we argue that leaders, through their humility, ensure
the efficient utilization of organizational resources (employees) by passing them through an
effective team-building process, which, in turn, motivates them to build up additional
resources in the form of project success. Based on the above discussion, we propose the
H2a. Humble leadership is positively related to team building.
H2b. Team-building is positively related to project success.
H2c. Team-building mediates the relationship between humble leadership and project
The moderating role of top management support
Top management refers to the key decision-makers of the organization involving the chief
executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, business unit heads and vice
president (Kor, 2003). Top management of any organization is the critical stakeholder of a
project because of its role in designing the project and providing support to a project manager
to ensure its successful implementation (Garavan, 2007;Niehoff et al., 1990). Young and Poon
(2013) asserted that top management support is the success factor for projects. Drawing on
the tenets of the conservation of resource theory (Hobfoll et al., 2018), top management
support may be categorized as resource caravan passageways in leaders’working
environment that facilitates the leaders to utilize and build up the organizational resources
efficiently. By fulfilling the needs for esteem, goals, deciding budgets, providing human,
material and technical resources (Ahmed et al., 2016;Islam et al., 2009), top management
support may increase leaders’comfort within the organization (Santos-Vijande et al., 2018).
Top management influences a project in several ways, such as the appointment of project
managers, creating a supportive culture, allocation of project resources, strategic planning
and implementing the project procedures (Zwikael, 2008). Top management interacts with
the project manager and team members to discuss different issues related to a project (Chen
and Popovich, 2003). Besides, the top management support has a significant role in
team-building (Lee et al., 2018). Top management activities such as sharing the organization’s
vision, communicating policies and team-building are considered to be closely related to
project manager (Boonstra, 2013). Therefore, we propose that the humility of a leader is not
enough to build a team or successfully accomplish a project unless/she is supported by the
top management of an organization.
Top management delegates the authority to project managers and value their feedbacks,
which creates the synergetic effects in the working environment (Slevin and Pinto, 1986).
Such collaborative working practices improve the performance of the humble project
manager and team members (Owens and Hekman, 2016), which is an essential requirement
for accomplishing a project. This suggests to reason that humble leaders will only exercise
the authority of delegating power to others (core characteristics of humble leadership) if he/
she has enough power delegated to him/her by the top management of an organization.
Similarly, asking performance-related feedback from the subordinates is another essential
core characteristic of humble leadership, which has been to be significant for team-building
and project success. A humble leader can only be able to implement this quality if the culture
of the whole organization is friendly, less bureaucratic and cooperative. This is mainly the top
management of an organization that mostly designs the organizational culture. This is
consistent with the previous studies that the barriers removed by senior management to
make project management more effective and enhance the speed of project delivery (Baiden
et al., 2006). Top management is responsible for helping to create a stimulating and nurturing
the fast-learning environment (Guns, 1996). The perception of a safe climate encourages the
project manager, as humble leader who admits the limitations, mistakes and shows
teachability toward uncertainty (Owens and Hekman, 2012), allows followers feel
psychologically safe to voice and express new ideas on a trial-and-error approach (Mall
et al., 2019;Yang et al., 2019). Such encouragement was focused on improving the efficiency of
the team members with innovative skills and finding opportunities for growth and providing
an innovative solution to challenges facing the workplace by allowing the organization to
success in the competitive business environment (De Jong and Hartog, 2010;Scott and Bruce,
1994;West and Farr, 1990). Standing with our arguments, senior management support has
been found positively to influence the project manager and team, any obstacles associated
with development process will be more easily overcome, because any delays due to internal
causes will be rapidly solved and take project toward successful accomplishment.
Consistent with the conservation of resources theory and particularly the concept of
“resource caravan passageways”(Hobfoll et al.,2018), the ability of individuals to build and
maintain their “pool”of resources (or conversely to lose their resources) is mostly
dependent on circumstances outside their control (Hobfoll and De Jong, 2014). Caravan
passageways are the environmental situations that support, foster, enrich and protect the
resources of individuals, sections or segments of workers and organizations as a whole or
strengthen individuals or group’s resource reservoirs (Hobfoll, 2011a). Indeed, top
management support in terms of reconciling work can be viewed as “resource
passageways”that can provide human resources, team decision-making, resolving
conflicts and functional organizational resources. Humble leadership and team members
feel that top management support is attentive to the issue of resources, perceive having
more resources (team building and project success) at the workplace. Given these
arguments, we propose that top management support positively moderates the relation
between humble leadership and project success and humble leadership and team-building
as well indirectly to project success.
H3a. Top management support moderates the relationship between humble leadership
and project success such that higher management support strengthens the
H3b. Top management support moderates the relationship between humble leadership
and team-building such that higher management support strengthens the
H4. The indirect effect of humble leadership through team-building on project success is
expected to be significant for those with high top management support and
nonsignificant for those with low top management support.
Data and methods
The target population for this study is Pakistan-based information technology (IT)
industry. The reason for choosing this sector is because the IT industry is project-oriented,
where a particular project is provided to a firm for a fixed period. The culture within the IT
industry is more casual than the formal culture commonly found in the manufacturing
sector (Kanwal et al., 2017), which makes it an appropriate population in this study.
Sample and procedure
Questionnaires were randomly distributed among the employees working in four large IT
companies for data collection. We assessed the head of work units and asked permission from
the employees working in their department to collect data. After their consent, employees
were informed about the purpose of data collection and assured that their information would
be kept confidential and be used only for the research purpose. They were given
questionnaires after showing their agreement and asked them to return in a sealed envelope.
The respondents were asked to consider their experience of a project recently completed
while giving answers to survey questions. Of 500 distributed questionnaires, 393
questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 78.6%. Of the returned
questionnaires, 56 were dropped either due to incompleteness or careless responses. This
reduced the number to 337 questionnaires to be used for analysis. The demographics of the
study respondents are given in Table 1.
The tools for focal constructs were adopted from previous literature. All variables in
studies measured on a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to
strongly disagree (5). Humble leadership was measured with the nine-item scale developed
Measures Item Frequency %
Gender Male 238 70.6
Female 99 29.4
Age (years) 20–30 79 23.4
31–40 80 23.7
41–50 96 28.5
Above 51 82 24.3
Education Bachelors 256 76.0
Master 49 14.5
Diploma 32 9.5
Work experience Less than 5years 28 8.3
5–10 years 112 33.2
11–15 years 103 30.6
16 years and above 94 27.9
Demographic profile of
by Owens et al. (2013), with an alpha reliability of 0.92. Team-building was measured with
a six-item scale developed by Potnuru et al. (2019), with an alpha reliability of 0.92. Top
management support was measured by using the six-item scale developed by Islam et al.
(2009), with an alpha reliability of 0.89, and project success was measured with the ten-item
scale developed by Turner and M€
uller (2005), with an alpha reliability of 0.94. Job
experience, gender, age and educational level have been demonstrated to influence project
success, and so should be included as control variables (Aga et al., 2016).
Data analysis was carried out using SPSS 23 and AMOS 23. The analysis was performed in
two steps: confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) and structural model testing. CFA is a
preliminary step in the data analysis process to confirm whether the measured items underlie
the hypothesized latent variables (Kline, 2015). Then, hypothesized relationships are tested
using a structural equation model (SEM) (J€
Confirmatory factor analysis
CFA was conducted to see whether the hypothesized four-factor model fits the data well. The
CFA results showed an excellent model fitness (
5819.09, df 5521,
p< 0.001, CFI 50.95, TLI 50.95, SRMR 50.03, RMSEA 50.04). The standardized factor
loadings were greater than 0.7. Next, the four latent variables were evaluated for composite
reliability (CR), convergent validity and discriminant validity. The CR values for all the
constructs were greater than 0.9, showing excellent internal consistency (Bagozzi, 1983;
Fornell and Larcker, 1981). Convergent validity was verified by using the values of the
average variance extracted (AVE). AVE values should be greater than 0.5 to achieve
convergent validity among the study constructs (Sarstedt et al., 2016). The AVE values for all
the constructs were greater than 0.5, verifying that there is no issue of convergent validity
among these constructs. Discriminant validity was tested following the Fornell–Larcker
approach (Fornell and Larcker, 1981). The criterion was fulfilled because the square root of
AVE value of all the constructs was greater than the correlation among all the constructs as
given in Table 2 (the square root of AVE is given in diagonal with italic letters).
Structural model testing
The SEM results of direct pathways for the hypothesized model are depicted in Table 3.
About the main effect, the analysis revealed a significant positive association between
humble leadership and project success (β50.17, p< 0.001), supporting H1.H2a was also
supported, as humble leadership was found to be a significant predictor of team-building
(β50.20, p< 0.001). Regarding H2b, the result showed a statistically significant link of team
building (β50.19, p< 0.001) with project success; hence, it was accepted. It should be noted
CR Mean SD AVE TB PS HL TMS
TB 0.92 3.4 0.79 0.57 0.75
PS 0.94 3.6 0.84 0.63 0.27
HL 0.92 3.6 0.79 0.58 0.19
TMS 0.89 3.5 0.77 0.58 0.19
Note(s): variances extracted are on the diagonal, correlations are off diagonal. **p< 0.01 (two-tailed).
variances extracted are on the diagonal; correlations are off diagonal. AVE 5average variance extracted;
CR 5composite reliability; HL 5humble leadership, TB 5team-building, PS 5project success, TMS 5top
deviation, validity and
that although the controls were not significantly related to project success, these results did
not influence the relationships among the study variables.
To examine the indirect effect in H2c more closely, we followed Preacher et al.’s (2007)
suggestions and conducted the bootstrap analysis. According to Wang et al. (2017), the
common estimates of indirect effect usually do not follow the normal suggestion and may
result in bias, and the bootstrap approach yields the most accurate confidence intervals for
indirect effect estimation. Bootstrapping tests are influential because they detect when the
sampling distribution of the mediated effect is skewed away from 0 (Shrout and Bolger, 2002).
We calculated 95% bias-corrected bootstrapped confidence intervals (CIs) using 5,000 data
samples. The top and lower bound results exclude 0 for team-building, which suggests that
they are significant by conventional standards. The bootstrap results indicate a positively
significant mediating effect of team-building between humble leadership and project success
(β50.03, SE 50.01, p< 0.05, 95% CI [0.01, 0.08]). It should be noted the direct relationship
between humble leadership and project success was also significant, which means that
team-building partially mediates the effect of humble leadership and project success.
To test H3a,H3b and H4, we adopted Model 8 using the PROCESS approach and conducted
what is known as moderated mediation or conditional process analysis (Preacher and Hayes,
2008;Preacher et al., 2007). A moderated mediation model is characterized by the
simultaneous presence of a moderator (in this case, top management support), which
affects the strength of association between two other variables (in the present study, humble
leadership and team-building and humble leadership and project success), and a mediator
variable (team-building). As illustrated in Table 2, the main effect of humble leadership and
project success was significantly moderated by top management support (β50.15,
p< 0.001). Table 2 also indicates that top management support significantly moderates the
relationship between humble leadership and team-building (β50.13, p< 0.001). For
descriptive purposes, team-building and project success were plotted against the humble
leadership in Figure 1 and Figure 2, respectively, separately for high and low top
management support (1 SD below and 1 SD above the mean, respectively). The bias-corrected
percentile bootstrap results further showed that the conditional indirect relation between
humble leadership and project success via team-building was insignificant at 1SD below
the mean of TMS (estimate 50.04, SE 50.01, 95% CI 5[0.15, 0.15]), but was significant at
Path Coefficient SE t-value
Age →Project success 0.018 0.04 0.32
Education →Project success 0.035 0.09 0.83
Work experience →Project success 0.13 0.04 2.43
Gender →Project success 0.04 0.06 0.68
Humble leadership →Project success 0.17
Team-building →Project success 0.19
Humble leadership →Team-building 0.20
HL_X_TMS →Project success 0.15
HL_X_TMS →Team-building 0.13
Note(s):*p< 0.05; **p< 0.01; ***p< 0.001
SE: standard error, HL_X_TMS: interaction term of humble leadership and top management support
SEM path analysis
þ1 SD (estimate 50.007, SE 50.01, 95% CI 5[0.15, 0.43]). Given that top management
support moderated both the direct and indirect paths, H3a,H3b and H4 were supported.
In this study, we empirically tested a model to examine the role of humble leadership in
project success. A positive association between humble leadership and project success was
found. A project manager, through his/her humility, may encourage and motivate team
members toward the integrative belief of project success characterized by productivity,
effectiveness and gratification of stakeholders. The results of this study suggest that
humility should be an essential quality of the project manager to ensure the successful
execution of the project. As such, this study supports prior studies (Bri
ere et al., 2015).
Moreover, this finding has addressed the gap pointed out by previous scholars that the
literature on project management is insufficient to highlight the role of project managers’
leadership styles in project success (Kissi et al., 2013;M€
uller et al., 2012;Turner and M€
2005;Tyssen et al., 2014).
The results of the study have also established a positive association between
team-building and project success. Our research shows that the existing four elements
involved in team-building, namely, project goal-setting, role clarification, interpersonal
relationships and problem-solving, could produce a committed and highly motivated project
Low HL High HL
Linear (Low TMS)
Linear (High TMS)
team (Shuffler et al., 2018). This finding supports the previous claim that through an efficient
team-building process, organizations and project managers are more likely to raise
awareness among team members about the project objectives, roles and responsibilities,
interpersonal interaction and problem-solving skills, which ultimately influence a project
success (Aga et al., 2016). Moreover, it was found that the team-building partially mediates the
effect of humble leadership on project success. This means that humble leadership partially
depends on a successful team-building process while achieving project success.
This study also confirmed the moderating effect of top management support on the
relationship between humble leadership and project success. This finding supports the
previous research that senior management has a moderating effect on the relationship
between the project manager and project performance (Kanwal et al., 2017). This result also
indicates the humble project manager is putting the top management support on the highest
rank for project success. The project leader must be able to get help from the senior
management to complete the project successfully. Investigating top management support
positively moderate, the relationship between humble leadership and team-building.
Additionally, the study follows a prior call for research to explore the moderating role of
top management support between the project managers and team building (Boonstra, 2013).
Humble leadership can be established by supportive top management, where team members
feel their input is valued and appreciated. Supportive senior management reinforces the
motivation to participate and provide toward achieving common goals and common purpose.
When team members feel accepted and supported within their team and team leader, they
may be more willing to part concern, cooperate and commit toward the team’s collective goals.
These findings may have several applied implications. First, our results point to the
importance of a humble leader for project success. Humility is a beloved quality that can be
learned and developed. Project managers should be trained with humble leadership styles, in
particular through action learning (Wang et al., 2018b), which could be a way to increase the
excellence of project-based organizations. Humility is an interpersonal and relationship-
oriented quality that can develop shared collaboration among employees through formal and
The second results of our research show that team-building significantly mediates the
relationship between humble leadership and project success. A leader’s caring role builds the
professional team to manage their work roles, responsibilities, wisdom and activities that are
important to perform well and achieve set objectives of the project. One implication acmes the
effectiveness of traditional team-building strategies, including formal and informal group-
level involvements aimed at improving social relations and clarifying roles, as well as
Low HL High HL
Linear (Low TMS)
Linear (High TMS)
addressing tasks and interpersonal issues that affect team functioning. This implies that
there is a good probability that projects will succeed when the team-building elements are
used correctly. The existing research described that this kind of implementation by an
organization cultivates an environment where team members feel competent, which results in
team productivity (Shuffler et al., 2018).
Third, our findings suggest that support from top management in terms of providing
resources, structural arrangements, communication, expertise and powers is effective
behaviors to enhance the likelihood of project success and team-building. The results will
help the practitioners to lead the projects with more enthusiasm where senior management
could take their role seriously to make sure the availability of necessary support to the project
managers. Senior management ignites coherence and problem-solving techniques through
the learning environment (Islam et al., 2009). Especially when project implementation time is
short, humble project managers and team members to manage this dimension of learning can
trigger the implementation time. The literature indicates that such support of top
management motivates project managers and project teams to exert maximum efforts and
keep high performance that ultimately leads to achieving project objectives (Hermano and
Limitations and future research directions
The results are limited by our study’s cross-sectional design and by the use of a single method
of data collection. The fact that data collected from information technology projects only limit
their generalizability, future studies should also consider other types of project-based
organizations when studying the impact of humble leadership. We did not examine the role of
organizational culture as a moderating variable. However, we believe that cultural variation
can affect project success and team-building, and future studies should consider this aspect
as well. Another possible area of research can be to study the underlying mechanism between
humble leadership and project success, in the form of mediators.
Our study has some limitations in future research that need to be resolved. First, our
research deemed the connection between the primary constructs rather than the predictions.
Future research can use experimental design to determine the cause and effect of such
associations. Second, though the CFA suggested four distinct constructs, due to the cross-
sectional nature of the analysis, possible common method variance cannot be ignored.
However, we tried to tackle this problem to some degree by applying Harman’s one-factor test
(Podsakoff et al., 2003). The results presented that the single factor accounted for only 22.9%
of the variance explained less than the threshold level of 50% (Khan, 2019), indicating that
common method bias is not a severe issue. Future researchers, however, may collect data from
multiple sources or over different times (cross-sectional) to remove potential biases associated
with cross-sectional data. The third limitation is the generalizability of the research. To collect
data, we focused on one country (Pakistan) and one sector (IT projects). Future studies in
other industries and cultural contexts may replicate the same study. More precisely, because
humble leadership is a relationship-oriented leadership style, comparative research should be
carried out between high and low relationship-oriented cultures to determine whether the
impact of humble leadership on project success differs from culture to culture.
It would be interesting to see whether humble leadership leads to adverse results (Ou et al.,
2014;Weidman et al., 2018). According to Mall
en et al. (2019), a large number of empirical
research into humility has demonstrated its positive effects. Though, it is unclear if humility
contributes to negative impacts, such as slower or less positive decisions that might interfere
with the company’s responses to rapid environmental changes (Eisenhardt, 1989). Future
research will be conducted at a turning point from which the impact of humility on project
quality or other outcomes is adversely affected.
Finally, our results also demonstrate that a humble leader can play an active role in
promoting team-building. Future research may study the effect of humble leadership on
different knowledge areas of project management across team-building dimensions
(goal-setting, role clarification, interpersonal process and problem-solving).
Increased knowledge about the factors prompting project success is of considerable
significance to project-based organizations. We have demonstrated that within the context of
information technology projects, humble leadership has both direct and indirect influences on
project success. Also, we showed that team-building as a critical project success factor plays a
mediating role in the relationship between humble leadership and project success as well
moderating effect of top management support. Thus, project-oriented organizations need to
promote a humble leadership style among project managers, e.g. through selection and
leadership development programs, as indicated by previous empirical studies (Liu et al.,
2017). This would, in turn, produce a working project climate encouraging team-building
practices like project goal-setting, role clarification, interpersonal relations and problem-
solving techniques. We hope that our study will prompt future research on project team-
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About the authors
Mudassar Ali is a PhD scholar under Chinese Government Scholarship at the School of Economy and
Management, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, P.R. China. He completed his Masters in Project
Management from Riphah International University, Islamabad, Pakistan. His research interests are
related to leadership and applied knowledge areas of project management. His research work has been
appeared in journals such as Leadership and Organizational Development Journal (SSCI) and Asia Pacific
Journal of Marketing and Logistics (SSCI).
Zhang Li is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Harbin
Institute of technology in China. She completed PhD in the field of management from the Harbin
Engineering University. Her research interest includes organizational behavior, human resource,
leadership and work–family balance. She has had research papers published in reputed journals such as
Journal of Business Research (SSCI),Personality and Individual Differences (SSCI),International Journal
of Stress Management (SSCI) and Current Psychology (SSCI). She has continuously been reviewing
articles for International Journal of Human Resource Management (SSCI) and Journal of Managerial
Psychology as well as AOM meeting papers. Zhang Li is the corresponding author and can be contacted
Salim Khan is a PhD Scholar of Business Administration in the School of Management at the Harbin
Institute of Technology. He received his post-graduation in the same field from the Quaid-i-Azam
University Islamabad, Pakistan. His current research areas are business ethics, human resource,
organizational behavior. His research work has appeared in journals such as Current Psychology,
Leadership and Organizational Development Journal and International Journal of Occupational Safety
and Ergonomics (SSCI).
Syed Jamal Shah is a Post-doctorate Candidate at the Shanghai Jiao Tong, Xuhui Shanghai, P.R.
China. He worked as a Marketing and Human Resource Manager in multinational and national
pharmaceutical companies. His research interests are human resource management, organizational
behavior, strategic management and marketing. His research work has appeared in journals such as
Sustainability (SSCI), International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics (SSCI), International
Journal of Conflict Management (SSCI), Leadership and Organizational Development Journal (SSCI),
Human Systems Management (ESCI) and Journal of Chinese Economic and Foreign Trade Studies
(ESCI). His target segment of research is frontline employees.
Rizwan Ullah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Management Science at the School of
Management, Harbin Institute of Technology, P.R. China. His research interests include green corporate
social responsibility and innovation performance of the firms.
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