What’s the difference between a project manager and a project leader?
If you’ve ever gone hunting for a definitive answer to this question, you probably ended up disappointed.
Depending on your company’s size, policies, and management, these terms might be used interchangeably or they might signify wildly different roles. Leadership is a hot topic in every part of a growing business. And if you have ambitions to lead a project team, then you need to understand exactly what makes a project leader different from a project manager.
So what does it take to get your team up on top of their standing desks reciting “O Captain, my captain!” to you?
In this guide, we’ll cover the key difference between some of the most similar sounding project management roles, define the key characteristics of being a project leader, and provide some simple ways you can start showing off your project leadership skills today.
Before we dive in: At the end of the day, your roles and responsibilities depend on what’s expected of you at your company, regardless of title. If you’re unsure of what’s expected of you, it’s always best to speak with a manager or HR to remove any uncertainty.
What’s the difference between a project leader and a project manager?
As project management expert Jim Highsmith wrote in his book Agile Leaders, “most projects are over-managed and under-led.”
The reason it’s so hard to find clear definitions between what a project manager and project leader do is that their jobs often overlap. In many situations, a project leader is a project manager (just with extra responsibilities).
With no clear definitions to work off of, the easiest way to see the difference between the two roles is to look at their key responsibilities. Here’s how these normally look:
A project manager is responsible for:
- Implementing product strategy, including product improvement, feature prioritization, costing, and release
- Setting deadlines and ensuring that projects remain on schedule
- Tracking sprint deliverables and providing updates to relevant stakeholders
- Ensuring the project is sticking to the agreed-upon budget
- Managing every moving part in relation to milestones, including schedules, documentation, staffing and, sometimes, HR concerns
While a project leader is responsible for:
- Communicating with team members, including relaying briefs, connecting daily tasks to larger goals, and providing context and support
- Ensuring the team remains focused and on track, including addressing any conflicts or bottlenecks
- Creating a vision around the project to provide team members with a sense of purpose and motivation
- Offering less tangible and more emotional support to help a team stay focused on the ultimate goal
- Fostering a workplace atmosphere that helps bring out the best in his or her team
Leadership is often more art than science.
While there are undeniable similarities between the two roles, the clear main difference is that a project leader has more focus on the people rather than the more technical aspects of a given project.
There’s a reason a project leader’s responsibilities include words like “vision”, “emotional support” and “purpose.”
Like in other parts of the business world, leadership is often more art than science and requires the development of specific and unique soft skills along with the more typical hard skills that were listed in your job description. (Soft skills are key traits that often apply to communication, decision making, leadership abilities, attitude, instincts, and work ethic).
The reason these skills are so important is that project leaders often work in grey areas. Rather than clearly defined deliverables and schedules, they deal with the intangible aspects that hold a team together and lead a project to be successful.
Project managers, on the other hand, work with known tasks, timelines, budgets, and scope. They have a more black-and-white, easy-to-communicate-on-paper role. Managers are constantly focused on the bottom line, pushing deadlines and the practical applications required to accomplish a project.
If you want to think of it another way:
If project management is like herding cattle—a time-tested technique with a high chance of success—then project leadership is like herding cats.
Project leader and manager aren’t always distinct roles
This isn’t to say that these are always two distinct roles.
In fact, a project leader could very well be a project manager—handling the technical day-to-day duties of moving the project forward while also leading, inspiring, and motivating the team to do their best work.
In many cases, the size of the team dictates whether these roles are different or connected. Small teams are less likely to have a dedicated “project leader”—at least in terms of an official title.
Some teams, on the other hand, are large enough to have multiple project leaders.
Remember: If you’re trying to figure out which of these descriptions best fits your role, that likely means you’re also working with others who need clarification. And regardless of whether you’re a project leader or project manager, it’s crucial that you know your responsibilities to make sure you can do your job to the best of your abilities, and to avoid stepping on anyone else’s toes.
Why a project leader isn’t a project lead or a product manager
Before we jump into the key skills that make you a project leader, let’s make sure we’re ultra clear on who we’re talking about. To make things even more complicated, let’s throw a couple of other terms into the mix: Project lead and product manager.
These are other common titles you’ll hear in the project management world and can often seem similar to the roles we just discussed. But again, they aren’t. So let’s get clear on who these people are and how they relate to your role as a project manager or leader.
First, a Project Lead is an individual on the team who is responsible for specific aspects or modules of a project (such as a feature or some functionality). This is especially important when a project is spread out across multiple teams or departments.
For example, a project lead will take on responsibility for another team’s contribution to a project, whether it’s submitting the necessary budgets or mocking up samples.
Next, a Product Manager is known “as the CEO of their products.” They’re responsible for generating the vision behind certain products, analyzing relevant market research and costing out projections, and then executing the strategy required to get them past the finish line and into consumers’ hands.
The product is, in other words, their baby, from start to end.
On the other hand, as we said before, a project leader differentiates themselves by focusing on the people, processes, and work environment related to the overall project rather than the technical aspects of what’s being built, or one more narrow aspect of the process.
The 7 essential project leadership skills
Now that we’re a bit clearer on the distinction between a project leader and the other people helping to drive your project forward, let’s dig into the next big question: What does it take to be a successful project leader?
Leadership skills are often harder to define as they’re about people, not products and processes.
As Astronaut Chris Hadfield has noted:
“Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others' success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”
Unfortunately, while inspiring, this doesn’t really get into the tangible skills you need to lead. To get more specific, we’ve put together a list of the essential project leadership skills:
1. Team management
Project leaders are the captain of their team. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best player. But that they know how to set-up their team and each individual member for success.
While project leaders always need to keep their eyes on the prize when it comes to the smooth completion of any given project, they’re also responsible for the daily mechanisms of team harmony. In other words, this means making sure the whole team stays focused and works smoothly together towards a shared vision.
But team management isn’t just about what you’re working on today. Project leaders distinguish themselves by identifying and elevating the right teammates to the right position so they can truly shine.
A project manager might dedicate a lot of his or her time to making a process work on paper, but a project leader will bring that process to life in the context of a team. To do this, they’ll use management tools like cheerleading, motivation, goal setting, and others, as required.
For example, a leader, recognizing that her team has been putting in extra hours on a project, might come up with a special reward—like a special team dinner together, or a day off post-project—to both demonstrate appreciation and incentive continued hard work.
2. Conflict resolution
Nothing slows down a project like conflict. But it’s a pipedream to think your team will spend all day happily working together. Instead, conflict resolution is at the core of being a good leader.
On a larger team, this might mean resolving conflict among multiple project managers. As every manager aims to carve out their contribution to the bigger puzzle, it’s essential to maintain open channels of communication, ensure that individuals can work productively together and feel greater than the sum of their parts.
For example, let’s say you’ve got two teams working on dependent parts of a project, but they’ve gotten out of sync with each other and feel like they’re being held back. All of a sudden, they’re missing deadlines and pointing the finger at each other.
At this point, a project leader needs to step in, de-escalate, and get the teams back working productively together.
The simplest answer here would be to bring the two project managers together and dig into their project backlog and future sprint planning in a tool like Planio.
Check that your proposed sprints include the work that frees up the other team to do their best work. Then, make sure your current tasks that are working towards that milestone are properly assigned and given a higher priority.
Finally, you could even add each project manager as a “watcher” on key issues. This way they get visibility into dependent tasks and know there are valid reasons why they’re being held up.
In project management theory, this is called confronting (or more generally, problem-solving, integrating, collaborating, or win-win). However, not all conflicts are easy win-win scenarios like this. As a project leader, you also need to be aware of the scenarios where someone is going to feel like they’re on the losing side.
And remember: there’s a difference between being a leader and a micromanager.
Creating a successful environment doesn’t mean always being up in everyone’s business to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Be clear about boundaries and then give your team members the room to flourish.
3. Servant leadership
A project leader knows that people aren’t tasks.
At their core, project leaders are what’s called servant leaders. This is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal is to serve the individual’s needs rather than just the interests of the company.
This doesn’t mean that you can forget about hitting deadlines and milestones. Instead, think of it as the same quality that makes a great scrum master. You’re not only helping guide the group as a whole but also making adjustments based on the feedback you get from each member of your team.
A good project leader is always looking for ways to get more out of their team—not because it will improve the bottom line, but because the most important investment is in the team they’ve built.
In a project leader role, don’t think of yourself as just a teacher; you’re also a student, and you can learn a lot from every member of your team.
In a project leader role, don’t think of yourself as just a teacher; you’re also a student.
Nearly every project hits what’s called the “messy middle”. This is where the clarity and energy that was there from the start suddenly disappears and your team feels like every day is a slog towards nowhere.
This can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe early feedback on their work isn’t what was expected. Or a stakeholder came in wanting to change the scope. Or maybe they’re simply losing steam from long hours and high expectations.
Whatever the case, a good team leader will be able to read the signs of discouragement—and even burnout—and implement strategies to make sure that people stay both inspired and on track.
This is more than just a pat on the back or a “good job!” You need to be aware of the psychology of motivation and how to keep your team focused and inspired.
For example, one recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that workers who spend 15 minutes at the end of every day writing reflections on what they did right, what they did wrong, and what they learned, were able to improve their performance by 20%.
There are lots of other ways to help your team be more productive and motivated. The key is to understand that these small practices can have an outsized impact on your team’s ability to get things done and feel good about their progress.
Not only that, but it gives you tangible feedback to work with so you can continue to optimize their roles and responsibilities for their strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most important roles a project leader can play is that of the chief communicator.
Communication can cover a lot of ground, including persuading team members to collaborate in a way they’re not accustomed to, negotiating with different project stakeholders on timelines and expectations, and removing any ambiguity about what’s expected from each team member.
In addition to keeping your team members productive and feeling appreciated, you’ll likely have to engage with both stakeholders and clients, updating them on progress, managing their expectations, and communicating their feedback to your team.
But more than just transferring knowledge and information, a project leader is differentiated by their ability to be seen as objective, transparent, trustworthy, focused, and confident. Here’s a little bit more about each of these qualities and how you can cultivate them:
- Trustworthiness: Above all, project leaders need to be trusted. Studies show that trust is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces. To be seen as trustworthy, you need to put your words into action. This means trusting teammates to get things done without micromanaging or even simply expressing that you trust them to do what they say.
- Transparency: Transparency goes hand-in-hand with trust. How can your team trust you if you’re holding things back from them? The best project leaders know that it’s more important to be open and honest about what’s going on and work together as a team towards a better solution. There are no hidden agendas or reading between the lines.
- Objectivity and fairness: Complex projects mean you’re bound to have conflicts and disagreements. And project leaders can’t be seen as playing favorites. Strong project leaders actively listen to all sides and work without bias.
- Focus and stability: Project leaders need to be unwavering in their ability to work under pressure. Not all projects will go as planned, but your skill as a leader is being able to steer the ship no matter how rough the seas get.
- Confidence: Lastly, stakeholders, executives, and team members all want a project leader who is confident in their knowledge and abilities (without being conceited!) Be clear in your language, direct in your suggestions, and honest and open with your feedback.
6. Proposing and shepherding changes
Over the course of a project—especially a big project with a long timeline and lots of different moving parts—changes will be proposed and the original plan might start to shift. Maybe a client will see the first mock-up or draft and realize, hey, this wasn’t what I was thinking! Or maybe your main competitor comes out with a drastic change and your company is suddenly rethinking their strategy.
As a project leader, your team should look to you during these moments of uncertainty. And while you can certainly help identify and propose changes, your true leadership skills come through helping your team through these turbulent times.
This means communicating new workflows or processes and making sure your team has access to the knowledge they need. Planio acts as a great knowledge management system as well as a powerful project management tool.
Using Planio Wikis, you can write, share, link, and update company policies, lessons learned, and best practices.
Formatting and structure are completely customizable, so your knowledge is easy to access whenever your team feels lost.
7. Creating solutions
Lastly, a great project leader doesn’t just address problems; they create solutions.
A good project leader will be able to spot trouble—and, ideally, potential trouble—and then present and implement solutions that satisfy their team and any relevant stakeholders. You need to be seen as a solution person who’s always looking for the positives rather than drowning in the negatives of unexpected issues.
Part of this is maintaining a positive attitude and focusing on what can be done rather than whatever is going wrong.
For example, if you have a team member who’s struggling to meet deadlines, you have a practical problem that needs to be addressed and corrected as soon as possible. But you also have to dig deeper for solutions: Why isn’t this person performing up to expectations, and how can you help them succeed?
Take the time to look beyond the surface of an issue and discover why it happened in the first place. Remember, project leaders are servant leaders. Underneath it all, your responsibility is to the team and the individuals that make it up.
5 ways to show you’re a project leader
Ultimately, if you want to distinguish yourself as a project leader, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re up to the task. So if those lists of skills still feel vague, here are a few ways you can differentiate yourself from the other project managers at your company:
- Demonstrate your interest and ability in managing human resources and team dynamics
- Set clear expectations for yourself and your team, and then make sure they’re met
- Contribute to resolving—not creating—conflicts
- Act as a cheerleader for every team member, ensuring that they’re both recognized and rewarded for accomplishments
- Take ownership over every aspect of the team’s progress, demonstrating that the buck stops with you and that you’re up to the task
You don’t always need a title to be a leader
A project leader isn’t always called a Project Leader. As someone with these skills, you’ll naturally rise to the top and separate yourself from the other PMs.
Just keep in mind that being a leader isn’t simply about hitting targets and delivering the goods. It’s also about projecting the right attitude and inspiring others to do their best work.
Everyone needs a good manager to keep things on track and on budget. But a leader will transcend those essentials and help create a better work environment that allows every team member to thrive.