Project Manager vs. Project Leader

I'm assuming that everyone understands what project management is. Most people reading this will have studied the PMBoK, learned various methodologies, read the books, etc. You understand that project management is the application of skills, tools, techniques and knowledge to project activities in order to complete the project objectives. I'm paraphrasing the PMBoK, but everyone's definition is similar.

Well you are all wrong!

Okay, that was a little melodramatic, but I can't accept that definition – project management to me is more than that. PMs have a responsibility to manage their teams – even in a matrix organization – and that means being a leader. Stop thinking about a project manager, and start considering the concept of a project leader. Let me explain what I mean.

Project Leadership vs. Project Management

Project managers are automatically in some form of a leadership position – they are controlling the project activities for their initiatives. In many cases they may not control the resources, but this doesn't stop them from being leaders.

Don't confuse leadership with authority – they aren't the same. I expect an effective leader to be able to inspire and motivate their teams, to develop their resources to be more effective contributors, to understand how their work fits in to the bigger picture and to be able to make the tough decisions when necessary. Does anyone think that doesn't also sound like an effective project manager?

It is short-sighted to see a PM simply as the person responsible for managing a set of tasks – project work is completed by people, and they need more than task-based management. The rest of this article is my attempt to outline what I believe a good project leader should be able to do.

The Easy Stuff: Motivating the Team

Being a project manager is often an emotional rollercoaster – the highs of a key milestone hit and the lows of an issue that just cost you two weeks – but the situation is exactly the same for project team members, often without the benefit of an understanding of the project-wide picture. The PM has to be able to manage people's emotions, to bring people up when they are down, to bring teams together when finger pointing is coming to the surface, and above all to keep them focused on the goals of the project.

This is not always easy; as PMs we have to understand the individuals that make up our team – what are their personalities, what makes them tick, which ones respond best to a pat on the back and which ones respond best to a kick up the baseline. There is no simple strategy that you can apply, you simply have to be able to understand your people and demonstrate true leadership – be someone that the team looks up to, someone they don't want to disappoint.

You can't do that with a gantt chart, or with the prospect of an upset customer. You have to make it personal; make a connection with each person and make them care about more than just the paycheck. I have done it with a sense of pride in a job well done, with the prospect of having to face the personal disappointment of failure... it doesn't matter as long as it connects with the team member. Additionally, say thank you – not necessarily with a big bonus, sometimes literally with a “thank you”.

When I have provided tangible rewards, it is again something personal – the promise of an extra day off on a family birthday, flowers sent home to a wife whose husband was working a weekend, even once a gallon of chocolate milk.