What are the differences between management and leadership? .. and how does it relate to project managers?

Susanne Madsen 
Developing Project Leaders

What are the differences between management and leadership?

.. and how does it relate to project managers?

Management is said to be the discipline that specializes on maintaining the status quo, conforming to standards and organizing and directing individuals around the boundaries (time, money, quality criteria etc.) that have been set to achieve the task. If you are a good manager it means that you are good at producing a set of products and services in a predictable way, day after day, on budget and to consistent quality. It is a discipline, which requires you to be rational and logical and make use of certain skills and methods.


Leadership on the other hand is concerned with setting goals, making improvement to existing ways of working and motivating and leading the team to reaching this new direction. It is characterized by certain behaviors such as sharing an inspiring vision, producing useful change, leading by example, empowering others and creating the most conducive environment for team success. Leadership is not about the specific skills you possess but about how you approach an assignment and how you relate to others.

Managers rely on authority; leaders on influence
One of the main differences between management and leadership is the way in which the two disciplines motivate people and teams to achieve objectives. Managers rely on their authority to get work done. They allocate tasks to team members based on what needs to get done and expect them to carry out their job, by and large because they receive a salary for it. Leaders, on the other hand, influence, inspire and appeal to people at an individual level. They strive to get the best out of people by aligning each person’s individual objectives to those of the project and organization.

As a project manager you must make use of both disciplines, but as you grow and develop in your career you will likely come to rely on leadership over and above management.

Can project managers learn to lead?
Many project managers come from a technical background and have a rational, logical and analytical way of thinking. It means that they are good at analyzing facts, calculating duration, coordinating activities and making rational decisions. They are task-focused and concerned with how to get things done. They see their primary role as delivering what the customer has asked for within the agreed parameters of time, cost and quality. They are less concerned with why their customers need the product and in which ways it affects their business and the people who develop it and use it. Their strength is in executing and following someone else’s vision and specification – rather than helping to define it.

There is nothing wrong with being logical and task-oriented. As project managers we need those skills, especially when planning and estimating a large project. The issue arises when this is the only style in the toolbox, which is then being used to also manage people and communicate with customers. Building high performing teams, great customer relationships and ensuring that the project actually delivers what the customer needs cannot be achieved solely through logic. It requires creativity, empathy, risk-taking, vision and most importantly the ability to connect with people at a very personal level.

Leadership can be learnt, but it requires conscious effort and a desire to collaborate with clients and team members in a deeper and more responsible way.

It is so true that the best project managers have both management-type skills and also leadership-type skills, as you describe. And, of course, with determination you can learn leadership skills but in reality how many project managers possess all of those skills or can even learn all of them?

Some are a natural part (or not) of our personalities and it is hard to change who we are, no matter how determined we are. And, in fact, if we did change in order to become more inspirational and risk-taking would we still be the same person and what attributes would we lose in the process?

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