Are You A Project Manager or Project Leader?

For the last few years, I have been working with a colleague on developing a new theory of project management. We argue that the project manager is not a manager in the traditional sense but a blending of manager and leader. This has been written about before by other project management scholars but I believe that we have a unique conception of the project leader that works best in today’s collaborative workplace.

The first question is why a theory of project leadership? Isn’t the definition of project manager enough? It may have been in the past but as project managers take on more complex projects and the project manager role is seen as a path toward executive management, the need for developing leadership skills is becoming paramount. It’s not enough anymore to have the hard skills of budgeting, scheduling, and analyzing risks. The new project manager has to be able to build a project team, form a community of supporters out of stakeholders, and empower team members.

In developing a project leader model, we argue that traditional leadership theories don’t apply for several reasons:
1. Project managers usually don’t have formal authority.
2. The project team members are often assigned and the project manager has very little choice over who is assigned to their team.
3. The short-term nature of projects prevents the building of long-term relationships.
4. The project manager has to compete with functional leaders for authority and resources.
5. Project managers may have little authority but they bear the full responsibility for the success or failure of a project.

We did find a leadership model that seemed to be a good fit with our conception of the new project leader. It is “inner leadership” which was developed by Dr. Fairholm (2003) to describe the leaders in the middle of most organizations. The characteristics of the inner leader are:
1. Trustworthy
2. Community Builders
3. Vision Sharers
4. Good at Organizational Alignment
5. Proficient in Empowering Others
6. Servant Leaders
7. Developers of Future Leaders

We see the project leader as more than adept at managing projects. Project leaders also help the organization succeed by building networks of empowered employees aligned around a common vision. This increases the chances for future projects to succeed and for the organization to grow more effective. Ultimately you have an organization that is easily adapts to change and is highly innovative.

If you are just starting out as a project manager, think of how you can develop your skills so that you contributions go beyond the project you are working on. If you are currently a project manager, then how many of the inner leadership skills do you practice? What can you do to refine your skills as a project leader?

Fairholm, G.W. (2003). The Techniques of Inner Leadership: Making Inner Leadership Work. Praeger.

Disclaimer: All opinions are mine and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations I belong to and should not be construed as such.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great framework, Bill. I like that you have more than just “Visionary,” but “Vision Sharers.” It gets at the importance of being able to infuse all that you do with that sense of vision – this project is bigger than what we’re doing right now and will accomplish in the short term.

And I think they’re valuable beyond project management as a standard for all government leaders- so how do these map to OPM’s Executive Core Qualifications for Senior Executives?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andy – Well, it’s Fairholm who came up with “Vision Sharers” so I can’t take the credit for his great concept. I haven’t thought about mapping these to the SES ECQs but I believe Inner Leadership would be a good fit. The standard my colleague and myself had in mind is PMI’s Project Manager Competency Framework (2nd Ed.).