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Project Managers: leaders or managers?

If you are someone who has read management textbooks for a long time then you will have noticed, over the last few decades, the increasing emphasis on leadership skills. Successful businesses are presented as those that have great leaders. In contrast, unsuccessful businesses are often presented as those without a vision or without bold leaders.

I am a big fan of leadership and have had the privilege of working with some great leaders in my career. So, it may be surprising to find that what I want to do in this article is to dispel a little of the hubris around leadership. I want to encourage leaders to be taken as role models for project managers, within limits.

Project managers can learn a lot from good leaders, but we must never forget the core management tasks that sit at the heart of project management.

Leader or Manager?

There are many definitions of leadership and management, and usually whenever these terms are used it is assumed that anyone listening or reading will know what they mean. But really, what does it mean in a project management space?

To me the project manager, as a manager, tends to take a detailed hands-on style of interaction with the project team. Such a project manager builds their own plans, understands the risks and issues in detail, and personally tracks progress against the plan. Ask this project manager what is happening at any time and they can give you a detailed report on all activity.

The project manager, as a leader, has a different style. The project manager as a leader sets a vision for where the project is going. The project manager as leader builds an environment in which the project team has the space and resources to deliver. As a leader, the project manager motivates the project team towards the goal he or she has defined. Ask this project manager what is happening and they can give you a vision of progress towards the outcome and the business benefits that will be achieved.

There is a lot more I could say – but I’m sure you get the picture I’m painting. I probably don’t need to write anymore to see that it is most useful to have both management and leadership skills.

Leaders versus managers

One aspect of much of the writing on leadership is the positioning of the leader as better than the manager. People are told off for “just” being managers and not being leaders. This is unfortunate. I actually don’t like the separation, and see leadership as a special form of management. However, this is not how the majority see the world – and so I will stick with the norm and discuss management and leadership separately.

One of the reasons for valuing leadership so highly is its importance to senior roles. It is true that, generally, as you get into more senior roles, and I would include project roles in this, there tends to be a greater need for leadership skills and a lower emphasis on management. But don’t let this general trend fool you into thinking that leadership skills are something that should be developed at the cost of your management skills. They are not alternatives, they are complementary skills that can and should be used together.

What happens if you use one style over another? Let’s stick with project managers for now:

  • Project managers who manage without leading: tend to have very detailed plans and chase on progress to task on a frequent basis. They are always phoning up team members and asking “have you done it yet?” This is a project manager who can foresee every trend in every aspect of the project. But afterwards, when the project is complete, ask the project team – did you enjoy it, did you learn anything? The answer is often no. This project manager can also be guilty of focussing so much on task that they lose sight of outcomes. The project is delivered, meeting defined requirements, but it is a project no one wants anymore.
  • Project managers who lead without managing: tend to have happy motivated project teams to begin with. But when something goes wrong, whilst such leaders can rally the troops around, it is often too late. Because they have not focussed on the management details they notice problems too late. Resolution is painful. I have seen big shot project managers hired to run major projects. Everything seems fantastic for a while. The senior stakeholders are pleased with the project manager, who always seems to know how to communicate with them. But then, all of a sudden, the project goes disastrously wrong. There is no forewarning or trending to red. The project goes from brightest green to deepest red overnight.

Of course, I am looking at the negative extremes, but I think this paints a realistic picture. If you have been a project manager for a while I’m sure you have seen both of these characters and situations.

Finding the right balance

In real life, many project managers work in the style they are most comfortable with. We all do this most of the time. But the truth is, whether you should take a more managerial or leadership style is less about you, and more about what the project needs.  Sometimes we need to be managers, sometimes we need to be leaders – often we need to be both.

Think about the team, think about the project task, and think about the context in which you are working. Bring these three chains of thought together and then decide whether you are going to present yourself more as a manager or a leader. Whatever is the right balance rarely is it right to be at one extreme or the other.

If you develop your management and your leadership skills, and apply them to specific situations as those situations need, then you are on your way to being a really great project manager.

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