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Project Manager to Project Leader: How Big is the Step?

Project Manager to Project Leader - How Big is the Step?

Are you a Project Manager or a Project Leader? And how would you be able to tell the difference? And how big is the step from one to the other?

This is an important question that can easily get bogged down in academic niceties and philosophic distinctions. But the fact is that we all kind of recognize the difference when we experience it.

One way I like to think of the difference between Project Management and Project Leadership is that:

  • Project Management gets things done
  • Project Leadership makes changes happen

But there is more to it than that.

And then there’s the PMI Talent Triangle

If you’re a PMI member, you need to hone your craft in three dimensions:

  1. Technical: the core skills of Project Management
  2. Strategic and Business Management: business-oriented skill
  3. Leadership: guiding and motivating the people around you
PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

So, with all of this as a backdrop, let’s get into the difference between Project Management and Project Leadership.

People and Project Leadership

Project Manager to Project Leader - How Big is the Step?
Project Manager or Project Leader

The role of a Project Manager is very much to do with tasks and getting things done. People skills are important because you need to allocate tasks. You need to brief people properly, monitor their performance, and support them in delivering their products.

The Project Leader role needs a far greater focus on your relationships with your team members and the other people linked to your project. It also focuses on your own personal qualities, which determine the extent to which people will willingly follow you: there can be no leadership without followers.

Yellow Bus or Purple Bus?

The best way I know to illustrate this is with my Yellow and Purple Bus analogy…

The Yellow Bus

People have to get onto the yellow bus to get where they have to go. It is well-maintained and safely driven. The driver is skilled and, if the bus breaks down on the way, the driver knows what to do.

The Purple Bus

People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. They enjoy the journey and find it stimulating. The driver is just as skilled as the yellow bus driver. People trust the driver and, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help.

This is a metaphor I have developed fully, in my book Brilliant Project Leader, from where many of the ideas in this article come.

What We’ll Cover in this Article

In this article, we’ll look at a range of aspects of Project Leadership and how it differs from Project Management.

Emotional Intelligence

Creating a sense of trust, and engaging people in what you are doing are two elements of Emotional Intelligence. The idea was first brought to popular attention by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence.

He later developed the ideas for the workplace and then set them into the context of leadership, with two further books:

Emotional Intelligence has Four Main Dimensions

There are different models of emotional intelligence, so I will offer my interpretation of Goleman’s. It is the most widely known outside of specialist and academic circles.

The four dimensions are:

  1. Self-Awareness
    Knowing and understanding yourself
  2. Self-Regulation
    Managing your responses, motivations, and resources
  3. Empathy
    Understanding other people’s needs, feelings, and concerns
  4. Social Skills
    An ability to engage with, motivate, and get the best from others.

We can recognize these four dimensions in the two characteristics of leadership that the driver of the purple bus shows.

Leading Others

The first cluster of leadership characteristics is what we recognize as interpersonal skills. These are the abilities to:

  1. understand other people’s feelings, concerns, desires, and needs; and then
  2. use that knowledge effectively, to get the best from those people.

As Project Leader, you need to be able to empathize with the people around you, to sense their mood, read their relationships, and master the cultural and political dynamics in and around your project.

You also need to be an excellent communicator, able to:

  • forge strong relationships,
  • motivate people to play their part in your project,
  • secure collaboration and co-operation,
  • influence stakeholders at all levels, and
  • handle resistance and conflict.

Notice how wide this range of skills is: from building one-to-one rapport with individuals up to inspiring a whole group of people with a compelling vision. Leadership is not easy.

Personal Leadership

Yet there is more.

Personal leadership refers to the depth of character, the personality traits, and the behaviors you exhibit every day. But your true personal leadership potential will emerge when things get tough.

These are what attract people to you personally, and build a sense of trust – or not – even before you have an obvious track record. It is more than ‘just’ charisma or presence, though. Because personal leadership arises from a real depth of character.

The things we associate with great personal leadership are:

  • credibility,
  • confidence,
  • self-awareness,
  • consistency,
  • optimism,
  • discipline,
  • resilience,
  • creativity and adaptability,
  • self-control, and, above all,
  • honesty and integrity.

These all start with knowing who you are and what you stand for. As a Project Leader, you must know what your values are in relation to your project and its impact on other areas of your life. More important still, you must be prepared to defend those values.

We have a full article on Personal Leadership that you may enjoy: Get Better Project Results with Personal Leadership.

Project Leader versus Project Manager in a nutshell

In 1989, Warren Bennis published a widely quoted book on leadership, On Becoming a Leader. In it is a table that compared management and leadership, which has been re-used and re-presented many times (often without due credit).

I’d like to offer my own adaptation of it, to try to summarize some of the differences between a project leader and a project manager.

Project ManagerProject Leader
Creates a project plan and directs actionsCreates a vision and strategy, and inspire people to act
Project plan for what how and when to do thingsDetermine what the organisation needs and why
Focus on processes, systems and proceduresFocus on people, their commitment and their ideas
Relies on governance, hierarchies and controlsInspires transparency, loyalty and trust
Communicates the project planPaints a vision of the future
Effective monitor and control cyclePrepared to innovate and make courageous decisions
Works within organisational boundariesChallenges the boundaries
Does things ‘right’Does the right ‘things’
People do what a Project Manager asks, because it is their job toPeople do what a Project Leader asks, because they want to

This table first appeared in Brilliant Project Leader, by Mike Clayton (Pearson, 2012)

Moving from Project Manager to Project Leader

The distinction in the table above is not entirely fair. No successful Project Manager can ever manage without leading too. And no effective Project Leader can lead a team without being able to manage the people and processes involved.

When things are going well, a Project Manager needs to do little more than managing their team. This will be enough to deliver their project to schedule and on budget. They may want to lead too, but this is the ‘icing on the cake’ of their principal role.

However, times will get tougher. And then, your people will be less confident and more uncertain. Management will not be enough. The tougher things get, the more a Project Manager must lead your team. Being a Project Leader has moved from a choice to a necessity.

What Being a Project Leader Means

I’d like to look at what being a Project Leader means in two ways:

  1. Your role in leading a team. I will outline this, and refer you to other articles at OnlinePMCourses, which will give you plenty more detail.
  2. The Leadership elements of a Project Leader role at the different stages of the project lifecycle

We’ll also look at The PMI’s View…

I will end this article by looking at how the Project Management Institute (PMI) may see the distinction between Project Manager and Project Leader. I’ll infer their approach from the way they illustrate their PMI Talent Triangle, which is the basis for their current approach to professional development for Project Managers.

The Four Essentials of Team Leadership

I have written an extensive article on this topic: The Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership. I recommend you take a look at this, for more detail.

This flows from my conviction that ‘you get the team you deserve’. That is, the work you put into developing your team is the driver for the quality of team work you can develop. There are four essential areas for you to invest in developing a strong team:

Focus on Individuals

The first essential for any team leader is to focus on the personality, needs, and capabilities of each individual. This is a vital investment that can harness the diversity of your team to the benefit of your project.

There may be no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’. It is our individuality that is the source of the strength of a great team. For me, the prime skill here is listening.

Your ability to listen is at the core of being able to:

  • harness each person’s particular talents
  • support and guide them
  • Motivate them
  • Develop their capabilities and performance levels

Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring are powerful ways to get the best from an individual’s performance. They harness the raw potential, and one of my favorite articles on this website is How Coaching Skills will Make You a Better Project Leader. Coaching and mentoring, of course, depend on your ability to listen.

Coaching focuses on helping someone to find their own solutions to improve their performance. Mentoring is more about sharing your own experiences. As you’d expect, we also have an article on that: Mentoring Skills: How to Mentor a More Junior Project Manager.

Two other articles you might like is:

Build and share a clear plan

People feel lost without a sense of direction. And if you cannot give one to them, they will lose confidence in you. Work with your team to develop a credible plan and tailor each component of it to the expertise and personal style of each person.

Creating a project plan is an exercise in continual problem-solving. But there is nothing like this exercise to bring a team together.

It is a big mistake for you to lock yourself away, produce a plan, and then present it to your team. At best this is Project management and not Project Leadership. At worst, you’ll just be setting yourself up for a storm of ‘I told you so’ if the plan does not work.

If your team works together on building its own plan, not only will you be likely to end up with a better plan… But the team will own that plan, commit to it, and work hard to prove it reliable.

Foster a true sense of team spirit

A second essential role of a Project Leader is to create a great sense of team spirit and collaboration. A vital aspect of this is ensuring your team feels a shared sense of pride in what they are doing.

There’s a lot of nonsense written about team building. We offer some very practical advice in our article: What You Need to Know about Building a Great Project Team.

Conflict Management

An important aspect of leading a team is the recognition that conflict will arise. More than that: conflict can be a good thing. When it is handled respectfully, it can be a source of critical thinking and creativity.

Unfortunately, though, conflict can get out of hand. A (sad) part of your responsibility as a Project Leader is the need to handle conflict. It isn’t something most of us enjoy, and many of us feel ill-prepared for it.

If you are one of those people who do not feel ready to handle conflict, we have a course on Dealing with Conflict in Projects. Take a look at the details here.

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

For a free introduction to the topic, we have two feature-length articles on this website:

Communicate relentlessly – and well

Good team communication is not negotiable. But what does it mean, and how can you encourage it?

You need to be able to articulate your vision for the project in a compelling and persuasive way. And we have you covered on this topic too:

If You Want to Lead Well…

Day-to-Day Leadership that Gets Results

Start with the basics. Our course, ‘Day-to-Day Project Leadership that Gets Results’ uses a Situational Leadership model to give you the confidence to lead your team members effectively from Day 1. Take a look below to watch a short introduction to what Situational Leadership is, so you can decide whether it is likely to be helpful to your own day-to-day leadrship.

The Project Leader Role through the Stages of the Project Lifecycle

At OnlinePMCourses, we use a simple Four-stage Project Lifecycle model.

Project Lifecycle – OnlinePMCourses Model

We’ll look at what some of the differences are between Project Leadership and Project Management at each of these stages.

For a summary of the 4 stages and what you need to do in each, check out our free Project Management Fundamentals course. Or why not upgrade to our low-cost Project Manager’s Starter Kit, which includes the Fundamentals Program.

Project Manager's Starter Kit

Project Definition Stage

Briefing your team at the start of a project is clearly a Project Management role. But, as you assemble your team, you must engage and enthuse them. And this is leadership. It needs you to understand the team’s dynamics and transform them into a coherent team that is committed to your project.

Other leadership roles include:

  • Setting up a governance structure
  • Managing upwards
  • Stakeholder engagement and communication, and
  • Negotiating your project definition and scope

Articles you might like include:

Project Planning Stage

As you get to know your team better, I’ve already argued that you should engage them in their own part of your planning activities. Brief them effectively, allocate work, and secure genuine commitment to getting the job done – a commitment you will be able to rely upon.

The leadership part of this stage lies in:

  • Understanding the relationship between innovation and risk
  • Keeping your team working together, when they are distributed over different buildings, cities, countries or even continents.
  • Anticipating what can go wrong

You may like these articles:

Project Delivery Stage

During the delivery of your project, your team will feel under the most pressure. A good leader will understand how the stresses can affect team dynamics and what you can do to address the problems. What is your team’s role in controlling your project and how can you manage their motivation and reward their endeavor?

At this stage, you must also show leadership to your stakeholders, and demonstrate your authority among colleagues – especially with your project board.

Do take a look at these resources for more about Project Delivery:

Project Closure Stage

Ironically, after all the effort, many projects remain unfinished simply because the Project Leader fails to close them down. Ironically, this is where a managerial mindset can help.

But, as a leader, you’ll want to ask how you can harness your team to help. But you will also be concerned with what risks your team poses at this stage, and how can you counter those risks?

And what are your final obligations to your team?

Your leadership responsibility must include giving them recognition for their work and good quality performance feedback that can help them further develop their careers.

We have a comprehensive article that surveys this vital, but under-examined, stage of your project:

What does the PMI Talent Triangle tell us about the distinction between Project Leader and Project Manager?

Simply, we can compare the list of examples PMI offers in its Talent Triangle flyer. Let’s do that…

Technical Project Management

  • Agile Practices
  • Data gathering and modelling
  • Earned Value Management
  • Governance
  • Lifecycle management
  • Performance management
  • Requirements management and traceability
  • Risk management
  • Schedule management
  • Scope management
  • Time, budget, and cost estimation

In summary, this is not much different to a listing of the PMBoK’s 10 Knowledge Areas.


  • Brainstorming
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Conflict management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Listening
  • Negotiation
  • Problem solving
  • Team building

Now we need to be careful in considering a promotional flier as authoritative. It clearly is not. But I do think it gives a good idea of the PMI’s internal thinking. And it makes good sense too. Their listing (with just one exception*) matches my own experience.

(*) The exception is Governance. I think of this more as a leadership role than a managerial one. But I also believe that there are both managerial and leadership aspects to it.

The important question is this…

What do you think?

Please share below your ideas about the difference between being a Project Manager, and being a Project Leader. I look forward to responding to every comment.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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