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Management vs Leadership: What’s the Difference?

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Published on December 28, 2021

Management vs Leadership: What’s the Difference?

Project management is not an easy job. While there's no such thing as the typical project, all projects share common characteristics. They have time constraints, budgetary and resource limitations, and have teams of people assigned to them. It's up to the project manager to lead the team and manage the use of resources to meet the overarching project goals and timeframes. All of which leads us to the topic for this article! What is expected of a proficient project manager in terms of management and leadership?

Management and Leadership

In their Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®), the Project Management Institute® (PMI) has what it calls the "Talent Triangle". The triangle defines the three sets of skills and knowledge that a project manager should possess.  The skill sets are Technical Project Management, Strategic and Business Management, and Leadership. The first set comprises the skills specifically related to running projects. For example development methodologies, resource scheduling, financial controls, and the like. The logical activity relationships that we covered in our first article would also be covered under technical project management.

The other two sides of the triangle are management and leadership. Leaders inspire, guide, and motivate their project teams, whereas managers direct, monitor, and control them. Successful project managers will exhibit the traits of both a leader and a manager. But it's not a foregone conclusion that a good leader will be a good manager, or vice-versa, Managers are appointed to a position and hopefully, they have — or can acquire — the skills and disciplines to succeed. Leaders are not appointed. Leadership is a personal quality. As stated in an article by the Forbes [Magazine's] Coaches Council: "If you act in a way that inspires, encourages, or engages others, you are a leader."


Leadership as the word suggests implies a forward direction. As a project manager, leaders will set and communicate project goals. A leader is a visionary. Now that does not mean that you need to be some sort of mystic, but you must be forward-looking and sell your project plan and vision to your team members. Without their complete buy-in, your project will be in trouble!

As the project head, you will be ultimately responsible for the team's achievement of the project goal. You'll have to make sure that team members are on the same song sheet and play well together. You'll have to build and nurture relationships, collaborate, and communicate news, both good and bad.

Ultimately, the project leader must build a foundation of trust with team members, partners, and stakeholders.  From this basis, the leader must resolve conflicts and solve problems that stand in the way of project success.

Leadership Styles

Now there is not a "one-size fits all" form of leadership. Everyone has their individual style. But successful project leaders are adaptive and are able to lead their projects in different ways, depending on the situation. PMI's PMBOK describes numerous types of leadership. We'll look at four basic styles: autocratic, directive, participative, and laissez-faire:

  • Autocratic: This is a dictatorial style of leadership, where the focus is on getting the tasks done without delay or consideration. It's high-control style where a project has little margin for error—think for example about an emergency project to restore service after a catastrophic network outage.

  • Directive: This leadership style would be used if team members are not experienced and need help in what, when, and how to tackle their assigned tasks. The direction would only be given as needed, until team members demonstrate their competence.

  • Participative: Sometimes called democratic, this style would be used with experienced project teams, where the project leader is familiar with the team members and encourages them to participate in planning and decision-making. Normally this leadership style would be used in lower profile, fast turnaround projects.

  • Laissez-faire: You could call this the 'delegative' style. It works with highly-skilled, experienced teams — especially in cases where the team members are subject matter experts. In laissez-faire, the project leader basically sets the overarching project goals and then delegates responsibility to team members to make their own decisions and establish their own goals! It's a style that requires a high level of trust between the project leader and team members.

These are the primary leadership styles. Others such as the transactional, servant leader, and transformational styles are variations on the theme. The servant leader style will be familiar to folks involved in agile Scrum development projects, where the project leader (or ScrumMaster) serves to anticipate and clear problems for her team to complete their project tasks.


In some senses, you could say that management begins where leadership ends. Leadership is about guiding a team towards a goal, while management is about getting the project team to execute the appropriate tasks in a timely and efficient way, in order to achieve the desired end result.  So while a leader guides the team towards a long-term goal, the manager directs them from way-point to way-point (think short term goals) until they reach the final goal. Now of course a manager may also display leadership traits, but they must switch into management mode to move the project along.

As we said earlier, managers are appointed and will exercise authority based on the powers that the team sees in that appointment (positional powers). Think of enlisted soldiers. They obey the orders of the sergeant because they know that they'll be punished if they do not. In the same way, a project team will obey their manager and do their job, but they won't necessarily give more than that. However, if they see their project manager as a leader and buy into her vision, then the sky's the limit.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, the terms management and leadership are often used interchangeably! That should not be so! Management is a set of skills that can be learned, while leadership is a personal trait that may be honed and developed. A good manager may have leadership traits, but a leader may not always be a good manager. Managers are task-oriented, knowledgeable, and informed, with a tactical focus. Leaders must be visionary, capable of insights and exerting influence, and strategically focused.

Do you see yourself as a manager? Would your coworkers see you as a leader?  If you're thinking of project management as a way forward, maybe it's time for some introspection and career development planning?

Qualified project managers are in-demand and employers are looking for candidates with certifications such as the PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). The associate certification is ideal for newcomers to project leadership, or candidates who don't have a four-year degree. If that's you, then check out business productivity trainer Simona Millham's CBT Nuggets CAPM online training. Simona will take you through the project lifecycle from start-to-finish and help you understand leadership traits and learn the essential management skills to lead your own project!


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