For some, the titles are virtually synonymous if not meaningless as each successful project bears the stamp of an individual manager or leader whose style, vision, and persistence makes things happen. As long as a project gets done on time and within budget, who cares whether the main individual is called a project manager or a project leader! Right?
For others, the titles reveal the essential distinctions between two very different kinds of people: the doers and the visionaries. The logic goes like this: managers follow processes, check boxes, stay on task, and ensure others get their work done. Leaders distinguish themselves by having "the vision thing" and inspiring others. In general, leaders don't excel at following processes or performing tasks -- they have managers to take care of those minutiae.
A project manager can be described as the person responsible for directing and coordinating human and material resources, while a leader has the ability to get things done well through others, said Max Wideman, a PM consultant. "It's a truism that leaders focus on doing the right things while managers focus on doing the things right."
Wideman notes that managers focus on goals; the telling of how and when; shorter range; organization and structure; maintaining; controlling; procedures; risk avoidance -- all in the service of the bottom-line.
Leaders, on the other hand, focus on vision; selling what and why; longer range; people; developing; challenging; innovating; inspiring trust; policy; and risk-opportunity -- all of which are top-line activities.
There are PMs who believe that a doer and visionary can inhabit the same body, but only if the person has inbuilt leadership qualities.
Project management is more than just management--it requires leadership, said Todd Williams, president, eCameron, a PM consulting firm. "Leadership can be learned," he said. "However, there are no checklists to determine if you are a good leader. It (leadership) cannot be tested for. It comes from an inborn sense of understanding people."
PM leadership involves more selling than telling, requires looking past symptoms to find causes, needs a mind that questions and explores, and much more. More than anything, leadership requires people skills. "Without the people component, there is no leadership," continued Williams. "A leader needs to be able to build a team, solve conflicts, clear road blocks, determine the ownership and resolution of issues, challenge the organization, and be objective."
Williams believes that part of the manager/leader problem lies with PMI's emphasis on students learning the various stages of processes. "While everyone agrees that processes are needed, it's important to emphasize they are the lesser of the ingredients in the project management pie.
"Project managers and their stakeholders need to get out of their chairs, quit entering tick marks in their spreadsheet lists, and LEAD."
Herman Mehling has written about IT for more than 25 years. He has worked for many leading computer publications and websites, including Computer Reseller News, eWeek, and InformationWeek. Currently, he contributes regularly to www.devx.com and www.enterprisestorageforum.com as well as www.projectmanagerplanet.com