Insight | 03 February 2021

Project leadership vs project management – what’s the difference?

Dan 200

Daniel Dovaston

Digital Project Manager


Looking down on people sat round large table with laptops

In his latest article, Dave Spencer, our Head of Delivery, gives an insight into the difference between project leadership and project management and whether one is more important than the other when it comes to a project’s success.

Ensuring the successful delivery of any project is a difficult task and one that requires the individual overseeing it to draw upon a great deal of skill, experiences and knowledge. The skills required may differ slightly depending on the nature of the project, but there’s a fundamental skillset needed no matter the type of project in hand, namely:

  • the ability to co-ordinate resources
  • budget management, tracking and reporting
  • planning and controlling timelines
  • managing and mitigating risk
  • identifying the project goals and crafting a vision for how to fulfil them
  • the ability to support and motivate those within the project team

It’s fair to say that that’s a large and varied skillset for one person to possess and be able to do equally well all at the same time. Especially given that some of them are more managerial and task-based in nature and others may be more rooted in the soft skills required of a team leader. But more often than not, all these skills are grouped under the one roof – project management. Given that some of these are people skills where leading, motivating and managing a project team is essential to a project’s success, it makes sense that the role of project management is split into two; project manager and project leader. Both roles are crucial to successful project delivery.

You can define the key differences between what a project manager may be responsible for and then those of a project leader as:

A project manager is responsible for:

  • Meeting deadlines and monitoring the cost
  • Tracking milestones and reporting progress
  • Managing the moving parts, such as timelines, milestones and resources
  • Implementing the strategy for the project

A project leader is responsible for:

  • Leading people through the project
  • Setting the strategy and vision for the project, to promote a sense of purpose for the team
  • Ensuring that the team is well supported from an environmental and emotional level
  • Addressing bottlenecks and issues
  • Fulfilling the project outcome in the best way possible

Sources: Planio and Timecamp.

People sat and stood round a table talking with open laptops

Project leaders make sure the team is well supported from an environmental and emotional level

Project managers are more centred around the project and ensuring completion of tasks, meeting deadlines and keeping it on track. Project leaders might be more focused on the people aspects of the project, creating the vision and creating the right atmosphere for the team to do well. You might also say that the nature of their roles and where their time is spent varies greatly too. A manager would be ingrained and neck-deep in the doing and execution of the project, a leader must take time to step back and think about the best way forward. Questions that each would seek to answer might be:

Project manager

  • How is the project doing?
  • Are we on track?
  • Have we done what we said we set out to do?
  • What and where are the risks?

Project leader

  • Is the project environment conducive to enabling the maximum efficiency and effectiveness?
  • What are the right roles for each team member to take and what do they need to succeed?
  • Are we meeting the goals for the project?
  • Is what we are doing still the right thing to do?

The above gives rise to the obvious question of,

“Is all of this really possible to be undertaken by a single individual within one role?”

For one individual to encompass all these traits and satisfy all these needs on a single project is a tall order. Quite often you’ll see an individual being assigned to the role of both the project manager and project leader on a single project and although they will fulfil the requirements of one half of the role well, they may struggle to cover all the bases of the other. From my own experiences of working with different project managers both within my own team and externally, I’ve seen many examples of people struggling with all of this on their plate. And more so with the leadership side of things than with the management element.

This is due, in my opinion, to the fact that there are copious amounts of formal training courses that can be done to teach project management skills. From the creation of a project plan and risk management to producing sprints, which set up the individual well as they’re easily transferable across domains, businesses and projects. Project leadership is something that is much harder to learn – people management in itself is a skill that often relies more on the personal attributes of the individual, as well as having notable experience in varied project managerial roles. Some of these responsibilities may even be split between the project owner and the project manager, depending on the structure of the team and level of experience of the two individuals.

Two people sat at table discussing what's on a monitor with two people high-fiving in the background

Project managers make sure tasks are completed, deadlines are met and the project is kept on track

Does that mean that project leadership skills and traits of an individual should be prioritised over project management skills?

When hiring in project management positions it’s important to ensure that the individual possesses the basic skill level across both disciplines of management and leadership. But given that many aspects of the managerial part can be taught from courses, qualifications, etc. I personally would prioritise the leadership characteristics of the individual. Ultimately, the management aspects are often activities that happen at certain parts of a project, but leadership is something that remains constant throughout the whole duration of the project and is the ‘glue’ that holds it all together.

Advances in project management technology and the introduction of tools such as AI will begin to see the computerisation of some of the aspects of the managerial side of the role. Planning, reporting, analysing trends, etc. will become automated and decisions made within a fraction of the time it takes a human project manager. Or at the very least served up to the project manager to help them keep the project on track. This should allow the project manager to focus more of their time and effort on the leadership side, supporting colleagues, setting the strategy and vision for the successful delivery and spending more time ‘thinking’ rather than being consumed by the ‘doing’.

As time goes on and the nature and complexity of projects increases, project leadership skills will be in greater demand. It will be the human soft skills and art of leadership, supported by project managers and AI technology, that will drive the success of the projects of the future. So as project management professionals, we need to make sure we’re arming ourselves now with the right skills, experience and knowledge to lead successful projects and deliver the outcomes our clients need.

If you have a project to discuss, then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.