Are You a Project Manager or a Leader?

What is the difference between a project manager and a leader? Should there be a difference?
Consider this:

Not all leaders are project managers, but all project managers should be leaders.

Click here for the best self-development resources

You can tell from the above statement that I believe a good project manager is also a leader. You can be a project manager without being a leader, but your options for advancement may be limited.

Take a minute and think about what you do as a project manager. Your list probably includes at least the following:

  • Coordinating
  • Staffing
  • Managing the budget
  • Managing the schedule
  • Reporting status
  • Managing issues
  • Managing risks
  • Managing scope
  • Leading the team
  • Facilitating the work
  • I bet you have many more items to add to the above list.Let’s leave the list as-is for now and think about what a leader does:
  • Directing
  • Setting vision
  • Setting an example
  • Motivating
  • Managing
  • Defining strategy
  • Leading the team

What are the similarities between the project manager and the leader defined above? The word managing does show up in both lists, so does leading the team. (Note that both sets of the above lists come from discussions with previous students.)

The differences are all about adding to your use of tools and processes by incorporating the art of project anagement. I mean your use of interpersonal skills, your ability to motivate others so that they want to follow you and your ability to get the team to see the big picture.

The next question for you to ponder is when are you a project manager and when are you leader?

Let’s look at an example of when you are a project manager and a leader. Let’s say that you are preparing for, facilitating and leading a project kick off meeting. As you prepare and create the agenda and reserve a
conference room and coordinator attendance, you are in more of a managerial role.

As you facilitate the meeting you may be somewhere between manager and leader (depending on the nature of the facilitation). But as you explain the mission and vision of the project to the team, as you motivate them to be excited about the project goals, you are being a leader!

I once heard an expression that I would like to pass on to you; “Managers speak the language of tasks, work to be completed. Leaders speak the language of stories.”

You can be a project manager who manages schedule and budget, but to move up you need to be a leader too. You need to be able to fulfill the managerial requirement AND set the vision, inspire and motivate.

Not all leaders are project managers, but all project managers should be leaders.

Improve your soft skills and become a real project manager with Margaret Meloni.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

James Merritt

I’ve always said “A good manager helps you climb the ladder of Success! A Great leader makes sure the ladder is on the correct wall!”

John Douglas Porter

Perhaps this is oversimplifying, but I’d put it this way: A manager who isn’t a leader is merely an administrator.

A “true manager” is combination of both a leader and an administrator.

Ryan Deschamps

I think a good project manager knows how to take on the role of a leader AND has to let the people around him/her bring out their leadership too (which is part of leadership as well).

As crazy as this may sound, I feel that the word “leader” sometimes gets in the way. Everyone wants to be the “leader,” but really we are talking about the ability to collaborate and encourage collaboration. When collaboration happens, we all behave as leaders. Sometimes that means taking the helm and saying “c’mon guys let’s GO!”, other times it means waiting patiently for someone else to take that role on. Both the former and the latter are described as “leadership” even though they can be polar opposite behaviors.

Elliot Volkman

Leaders can come from within a team as well. This definition seems to relate a person of power is still an attribute of a leader, which is not always the case.

Karen Stewart

A leader inspires others toward an objective; moves to the side and lets them proceed; is always nearby to offer guidance or course correction; and celebrates the accomplishments of others.

A manager plots the course; provides exact directions; stays in front so everyone can see them; and celebrates their accomplishments.

Andrew O. Green

In looking at my organization, we have front-line supervisors and directors one level above that. My perspective is the front-line supervisor should be managing the day-to-day work and the director, a step removed from that, should be the one setting the strategic vision for the organization through communications both up and down the chain of command.

Not every organization is going to be structured that way, though. Not everyone gets to have a tactician manage the day-to-day and a strategist to set the overall direction plus communicate to senior management. Sometimes you’ve gotta be both, and take your share of the day-to-day work on top of that, so you’ve got to pick your spots.

It is difficult for anyone to be in the midst of day-to-day operations to have the time to sit back, take a break, and really get a chance to look at the overall picture. This is where planning comes in. If you’re an organized PM who needs to be both manager and leader, it is best to do as much planning in advance of the project starting, or the next Fiscal Year of your program starting. That’s where you can see the budget, staffing resources, and the other important information to set a strategy, a vision, and re-evaluate the project goals and the long-term (out-year) goals, and stick to them throughout the project/FY (tape them to your cube wall if you have to remind yourself, because when times get bad/complicated, it’s good to be reminded of what’s truly important in a project to avoid scope creep). If there’s a major change in funding or a big delay, the plan can be re-evaluated as needed, and it will likely be a variation on the current plan, not a new one altogether; it’s much easier to find your way back to the road or find an alternate route when you draw the map clearly from the start.

It’s during the planning phase where you’re also taking your slice of the day-to-day work to be done, so you’ve gotta know your limits. That’s also the time to do the motivating, tell the people on your staff your expectations of them, that you’re counting on them, you know they can do it, how important their part of the project is, and do maintenance on that motivation throughout the year instead of trying to build motivation well after the fact; get the momentum going early and give it a nudge from time to time instead of pushing that ball uphill when you don’t have time for it. When people have a clear idea of the expectations placed on them, it usually begets good work from them and good morale.

If you need motivating stories and don’t have many of your own, watching “Apollo 13” with Tom Hanks is a great example of how a Federal Program can adjust to serious problems, unexpected circumstances, and how a large project team can work together, each in their own way, and how to communicate with contractors effectively, and on, and on, and on.

The #1 thing people like to hear, though, is that they are appreciated and that their work is important. You don’t have to be a great speaker to get that message across, but you may need to be a good leader to let your people speak about their concerns and ideas in a meeting without tuning them out because of who’s talking.

Daniel Honker

I think it’s as simple as this:

Management is about consistency. Leadership is about change. Management comes largely through positional authority (to direct work, sign paychecks, review performance, etc.), while leadership can come in many other forms of power, particularly personal and referential power.

Janet Richardson

The operative word is “should” be leaders. That is not always the case. Managers are the liaison between corporate (command) and the workers. They maintain the company line, respond to taskers and attempt to keep the staff informed.

Leaders are the people we go to for direction (SME), motivate staff, create a cohesive unit and people follow regardless of their title.