Three Differences between Leadership and Management for Project Managers

By Su-Cheng Wu

It is said that great leaders often are visionaries who can excite people about change, but may not have the skills or discipline to manage the details. On the other hand, managers with great strength in running the details may lack vision. It is said that good managers hire visionaries and good leaders hire managers. 

For me, the first difference between leadership and management is the proper management of chaos and order; any successful business driven by innovation must learn how to harvest and work with both. Leadership is about winning through constant inspiration and about promoting innovation, which often risk introducing chaos into order. On the other hand, the success of a winning vision must rely on solid management skills, which require great discipline in organizing, executing and monitoring all the details. In short, good management is about establishing order in the midst of chaos. Specifically in the context of a project manager’s role on a project, a project manager needs to know both a) when to be a good leader that promotes change via decisive actions and use passion to induce the right talents to be proactive and innovative, and b) when to focus on establishing and protecting orders and execute all the details based on the strategic plan, so that the project could be accomplished in an efficient and orderly fashion.

The second difference between Leadership and Management could be seen when stability and order break down in a project due to too great of a change, regardless of it being triggered by choice of innovation or by external factors. When chaos threatens a project’s chance of survival, leadership and management respond to this threat differently. At the most a project manager could try to induce resources or negotiate trade off, and minimize impacts of changes versus progress. This is mostly a balancing act to re-establish order and build compromise within an agreed upon frame work. When this is no longer effective, leadership is required, and on a project it often materializes in the form of non-project managers acting as project leaders who must take corrective actions such as ordering the resource to act or to actually promote, accept or veto any radical project changes on behalf of stakeholders or sponsors. The leadership tactic is no longer about balancing existing rules of the project, but to change it completely and re-establish a project’s chance of success. This difference could also be seen just within the Project Management’s role, where one is required to be both responsive and adaptive to change by being open to negotiation but also know when to be firm and signal the proper leadership to take corrective actions.

Finally, the third difference is in macro and micro focus on corporate and project objectives. Leadership must focus on the big picture as in how does the project fit with the firm’s strategy whereas management needs to properly inherit and understand that vision and get deeply into managing the hands-on aspects of all the factors to successfully deliver the big picture. Specifically for project manager on a project, one needs to have both micro and macro perspective and balance them well. Example includes inspiring team loyalty to forge a unified team but still under the premises of cultivating loyalty to parent organization and foster a prioritized culture where a team is willing to put organizational priority and loyalty above the team’s own interest.


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