Project Managers vs Project Leaders - Which One is Best ?

project managers

Project Managers vs Project Leaders – If there’s one debate that is vibrantly alive in project management circles, it’s the one on project managers vs project leaders.
  • Are project managers really that different from project leaders?
  • If so, what constitutes this difference?
  • Which role is more impactful, and hence more powerful?
  • What can I personally do to make for a better manager/leader? And can I be both at the same time?

We tell you that “Yes”, the default project manager can be quite different from his project leader counterpart. Or… not! The key lies in his approach, and not in his role. In this post, we attempt to demystify this statement for you.

This post also intends to stir within you the seed for higher transformation. So as you read through the subtle differences captured below, you will also come across notable quotes from revered leaders of our times, so you feel inspired to transform from a mere project manager to an outstanding leader!

Project Managers vs Project Leaders

Below infographics on Project Managers vs Project Leaders,throws light on major points of differences between the two.

project manager vs project leader infographics

Project Managers co-ordinate another’s vision, Leaders create their own

As always, it all begins with the vision. In fact, here’s a quote from American botanist George Washington Carver who cleverly captured its significance:

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope!”

If you think that’s a harsh statement, consider what you can really “lead” without a vision. As a project manager, you tend to align with the goals and project managers objectives, as defined by another – perhaps your immediate boss, or the company CEO, or even an important client. But the truth remains that you’re essentially working for somebody else’s vision. This is not a bad state of affairs. BUT, when you decide to own it, you transform into a driven leader.

We don’t mean that you hijack another’s vision here, but that you take complete ownership and responsibility for it. You go well beyond the definition of your role as you strive to fulfill a vision you treat as your very own. Heck, you may still continue working for your boss, your CEO or that important client; but the refined attitude with which you drive your peers and juniors will reflect that of a commanding leader.

Transformation tip: As a project manager, constantly ask yourself, “Do I fully understand the vision? Am I supremely excited about it? How can I make it my own and take complete responsibility for it?” You will see that you’re performing as a leader!

All Leaders are Project Managers; the reverse is not necessarily true

Again, we refer here to the approach with which you tackle your role, and not the title of your role. If you are a leader of any sort, you are sure to have learnt the knack of “managing” the resources at your disposal (like time, money, people, etc.). It’s an administrative task that’s part of your role!

On the other hand, not all project managers have the ability to “lead” followers.

As a manager, your job description places you in charge. As a leader, your proactive attitude puts you at the forefront so no matter what role you play, you remain firmly in charge. As award winning author/speaker James M. Kouzes succinctly puts it, “Titles are granted, but it’s your behavior that earns you respect”.

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Project Managers drive projects, Leaders drive people

This is yet another significant difference. For project managers, it’s all about the project: status, milestones, project plans, risks, budget, performance, etc. Not that these aren’t important, but when you “lose” yourself in the project’s dynamics, you remain as a humble project manager.

Leaders do keep an eye on the project’s dynamics, but they reserve their top attention for their most treasured resource: People. Think about it, how good are your project plans if you don’t have an enthusiastic team to make it happen? Leaders realize this truth.

Leaders do much more than just drive projects; they also inspire their people, they spur their team on, they galvanize an entire crew to act right and move forward! No prizes for guessing which team you’d personally prefer to work with: the dull project manager, or the captivating leader!

It is perhaps this sentiment that was finely stated by famous Management consultant and leader Peter Druker, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”.


Project Managers strive to meet goals, Leaders strive to be bigger than their goals

As a project manager/ leader, you have ample opportunity to set goals, for yourself, for your team, or possibly a whole company. What is your underlying attitude when you set these goals?

  • Do you operate from a fear of (potential) failure?
  • Do you tend to stay in the “safe” zone?
  • Do you draw the future based on what has been possible in the past?

Your goals expose that one tangible virtue that differentiates project managers from bigger leaders (also project managers): the ability to become even bigger. Leader’s constantly strive to think big, plan big, act big, and become even bigger than themselves. They’re not interested in merely fulfilling their goals and objectives; they push to surpass them (and themselves) beyond measure!

As corporate magnate Donald Trump proclaimed, “You have to think anyway, so why not think BIG?” This is undoubtedly true for the project manager cum leader.

Leaders take responsibility to erase all impossibility

As a project manager, you’re bound to face some challenges that first seem impossible to overcome.

  • Perhaps you’re running terribly late on an important deadline, and fear backlash from top stakeholders…
  • Perhaps you’ve run out of funds for your project. (Gulp!)…
  • Perhaps core members of your team have quit, and your project suddenly lacks critical expertise…
  • Perhaps that prototype did not deliver the expected result, and senior management is considering shelving your project…

The key lies in looking beyond this initial perception.

Sportswear giant Adidas sure seem to have got it right when they play to “Impossible is Nothing!” This is not just a positive-thinking spiel for leaders, but a practical guide to thinking right. Leaders realize that it is NOT the outer situation, but your decision that determines what is possible or impossible.

Henry Ford, the visionary leader rightly captured this subtle truth when he noted, “If you think you CAN (do a thing), or think you CAN’T (do a thing), you’re right”.

Leaders consistently decide that they CAN (do anything). Then, it’s merely a matter of backing this decision with renewed knowledge and resources to make it happen.

When a project manager consistently works from this space, regardless of his title/role, he works as a tenacious leader who takes responsibility to erase all possibility. Bravo!

Project Managers are DO-ers, Leaders are THINK-ers

This premise catches the under-developed project manager off-guard. You’re managing plenty: milestones, people, project managers skills and time, a whole lot of money, a whole lot of tough expectations, etc. etc. And yet, we have the gall tell you that you’re only a DO-er. Huh??

As always, it all boils down to one fundamental question: How do YOU see yourself (and your role)?

  • Do you see yourself as a manager coordinating multiple teams, and the skills/ resources/ commitment they bring to your project?
  • Does your focus lie on “making things happen”?
  • Are you a tactical manager: organizing stuff, keeping things in control, resolving problems, etc.?


  • Do you see yourself as an enabler of great talent?
  • Does your focus lie on empowering others to make it happen?
  • Are your efforts spent on better strategies, through vision, inspiration and innovation?

As you can see, mere managers are mere DO-ers who can get good, but limited results. Leaders are the real thinkers that inspire outstanding results.

Quoting the genius that was Henry Ford, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” As a leader, you certainly want to be that best friend for your entire team!

Project Managers challenge their team, Leaders challenge themselves

Through this post, we’ve been shedding light on the importance of project managers, and being an enabler for others in your project. But under no situation should you mistake this as an opportunity to relax, even as you constantly push others!

We’ve often heard project managers comment, “See, I’m a great project leader coz I’m constantly challenging my team.” If you’re one such manager, we have a question for you: Do you challenge yourself with as much ferocity as you challenge others?

You’ve heard of the “lead by example” premise; never is this more relevant than in a project management scenario. While challenging your team can keep high achievers on their toes and hungry for more, it can also backfire on the mediocre performers who look towards you for their inspiration. Here’s where your personal work ethic counts.

Almost everybody loves to work with a “challenging” leader, and by this, we don’t mean that you put others on the spot by assigning them difficult tasks, but that you constantly challenge yourself (and others) beyond your comfort zone, and show them how it’s done. It’s mighty important here to keep your focus on both ends of the spectrum: challenging yourself, even as you positively empower (and challenge) others. Only then can collective evolution happen (the only type of evolution that works in leadership scenarios).

Evolution is also incredibly contagious. So with time, your team too will catch that virtue that encourages one to constantly strive to better oneself, and support others to do the same.

Quoting again from James M. Kouzes’ Leadership-Challenge, “Exemplary leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, THEY must be models of the behavior they expect of others”

Are you an exemplary role model for project leadership?

Project Managers are committed to winning, Leaders are committed to learning

As a project manager, have you ever come across team members that are more skilled than you? They are better than you, so you are unsure how to “manage” them? It’s almost like their superior skills taunt your own lack of knowledge!

Well, leaders have no such problem.

Project Managers are often committed to winning on a project: win the next bid, win your client’s trust, win over your competition, win your project’s success by all means, etc. Winning is definitely not a bad thing. But when you become addicted to it at the cost of learning, you lose more than you win.

Project leaders are consistently committed to learning; it comes from constantly striving to do even better. How can they deal better, plan better, budget better, administer better, strategize better, lead better, be even better every day. So when they come across that superior-skilled member, they welcome this as an opportunity to learn even better.

One leader who emulated this principle was American President and Leadership legend, John F Kennedy. As he proudly proclaimed, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”.

It’s a lesson well learnt.

The final call…

We’re going to take a step back here and say that we understand if you’re still reasonably confused between the two terms: project manager and project leader. After all, several corporates encourage both roles for seamless execution of a project. But like we’ve been iterating through this post, it’s never about the title or the role, but the personality behind the role.

Your title may declare you a project manager. But if you’ve been showcasing the refined leadership qualities expressed here, rest assured that you are indeed a true leader. People leader, project leader, without-team leader – it simply doesn’t matter!

The purpose of leadership in management (and this includes “project”-based management) is to constantly expand our own capabilities, even as we empower others to emulate the same. It is the expansion and inspiration of people involved that make projects successful!

We leave you with one final quote from an American statesman and thorough leader, Henry A. Kissinger.

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”

We couldn’t have said it better!!

First Image source: pixabay.com

Related Courses :-

  1. Microsoft Project 2013 for Project Managers


  • Comment Avatar
    oludayo kehinde

    Well done. Amazing work J.