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The Difference between a Project Leader and a Project Manager

17 Dec 2021

When the word “manager” is used, the majority of people often think of a leader. Being in charge, making decisions, and carrying the responsibilities to make the project successful are just some of the examples of what managers and leaders do. However, there are some differences between manager and leader that are not just in the title. Their roles are more different than you may think.

The role of a project leader 

First of all, it is important to note that leadership is not just a position – it is a set of skills, behaviours, and attitudes. It is not reserved only for the person who is in a position of leading a team; it is something every team member should demonstrate. But when speaking of leadership as a title, there are several types - project leadership being just one of them. 

Project leaders are the ones that engage people - they motivate them, give them clues and ideas, listen to them and pay attention to how the employees feel. Having that positive atmosphere at work increases the productivity of the workers. And that is the main reason having great leadership skills is important. 

Difference between a Project Leader and a Project Manager

But leadership is also about guidance. Projects are made up of many different people who are contributing, and obviously, they will need someone to guide them through the process. That is the responsibility of a project leader. They have to deliver the results with the project team members they have, but seeing as projects are temporary, there can be some changes mid-way. Sometimes team members change in different phases or, for some projects, the plan itself changes hallway through - scope may evolve based on stakeholders feedback, and so on. Project teams can be made up of people from different departments, divisions, locations, and even different organisations. Each team member brings a different set of skills, collaborating with the rest to create something new and unique. So, the key responsibility of a project leader is to give out instructions and guide people through their tasks in case of obstacles. Their main concern is the project’s outcome - they are aiming to make sure the project is carried out in the best way possible and that every detail is taken care of with no understatements. 

The role of project managers 

Project managers are in charge of taking care of the entire team – making schedules and helping out with problems other team members face. They are organised and goal-oriented. They make project goals their own and inspire the rest of the team to feel the same shared purpose towards the goal.

Project managers foster the people skills needed to develop trust and communication among all of the project's stakeholders. They are in charge of resolving complex tasks into subtasks that they then document, monitor and control, adjusting steps to each project. A part of a project manager's job is also to do reviews after the project is done, which is to teach a lesson to improve their and their team's skills. All of these tasks are the reason why, according to Chuck Williams, good management is a fundamental condition for a successful organisation and progress in lending and maintaining a position in the market after achieving a sure success.

So what are the differences?

If all of this still sounds like there is not a distinctive discern between the two – here is a basic summary of apparent differences:

  • Managers solve the problems of others so others can work, and leaders inspire others to find solutions themselves.
  • Managers stick to the status quo. Leaders like changes, creativity and taking risks.
  • Managers use short term perspectives, while leaders use long-term.
  • Manager's goal is to have control and limit the choices of others; the leader is focused on broadening the choices and possibilities others have.
  • Managers are focused on bettering the ways the team is working and monitoring how they are performing. So, while their primary focus is on the tasks, the leaders are more focused on the people and their motivation.
Project Manager vs project leader innfographics

But the main difference is – leaders care about doing the right thing, while managers care about doing it the right way. In other words, leaders start from a question, "What are we supposed to do?" while managers start from "How can we make what we already do better?" Leaders focus on vision, mission, and general and specific goals, while managers focus on productivity and efficiency.

Organisations need both leaders and managers, despite their differences, or better yet – because of their differences. Managers have a crucial role in overseeing daily tasks, and leaders have a key role in inspiring others and deciding on a long-term path for the company's development. 

The importance of leadership skills for both managers and leaders

As we have already mentioned, leadership is one of the most valued skills in today's business world. Being a leader requires not only technical skills but also strategic ones like communicating the project vision, goals, and objectives. It also includes soft skills like emotional intelligence, motivation and team development.  

One of the most important factors that differentiate a leader as a position and a true, great leader, is emotional intelligence. It is a crucial skill for leading a team because you need to be aware of your own emotions and moods in order to recognise others'. The four main aspects of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness and social skills.

Self-awareness is important because, in order to understand how others feel, you need to be able to recognise and understand your own emotions and how they impact you, your job performance and your team members. A big part of emotional intelligence is also self-regulation. This is the ability to think before acting. It's suspending snap judgments and reactive behaviour. It can help us make decisions and take actions based on thoughtful consideration instead of emotional reactions. Emotional outbursts reduce safety and trust, so practising self-regulation improves our team's trust in us. Social awareness and social skills are about leading and managing people like project teams, building social networks and establishing rapport. Observing people's behaviour is helpful because then we can expect specific reactions, think about how to avoid them, stop them, or help them.

Emotional intelligence is tied to another very important factor - motivation

Knowing your team members is essential for understanding how to motivate them. Money isn't always a solution for motivation; sometimes, you need to know other extrinsic motivators, or sometimes you need to understand how to help them be better with intrinsic motivators.

Knowing your team - every individual’s needs and the general environment in the office should be guidelines on the leader's behaviour. Matching leadership style produces an intended outcome. Leadership styles are a continuum from very strict, directive to very "hands-off". Thinking about your current situation and team members is the guideline to choose which style you need to adapt. This is very important for team development.

If you wish to implement these skills to better your leading strategy, the Institute is offering a Project Leadership & Management Diploma course that teaches you all of this and much more.  To learn more about the course, click here