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Leadership vs. management isn’t a competition—they’re both important.

There’s no right way to manage or lead. I’m sure of it.

Every human you work with is different and has their own way to be motivated, and every manager or leader has their own way of doing just that. Being a leader or manager both have their benefits; people need to be managed just as much as they need to be motivated, inspired, and lead.

There are many effective managers that facilitate projects and work and get the job done as it should be, but what are some inherent traits of leaders that inspire change of process and push the status quo?

Here, I explain a few key differences between managing and leading. Want to harness the traits of both to become a kickass PM that doesn’t annoy the crap out of your team? My hot out-the-oven takes below.

As a project manager, one of the key parts of our jobs is to “manage”. Go figure. Over the first few years of my career, I felt I was walking a fine line of managing and micromanaging. I wanted to instead feel like I was empowering my team to get the job done by being an inspiring leader and manager, without bogging them down with the details. How can you ensure you’re leading vs. managing? What does that take?

What Is The Difference Between Leadership And Management?

Perhaps before digging into the nitty-gritty, let’s define what we think leadership and management are, what they excel at, and their roles before we speculate too much on their differences. What truly is the difference between management and leadership?

This is not a scientific example, nor is it the job description of either role.

It’s important to note there’s rarely a role in an organization of “leader”. Not many people walk around with the title Director of Leadership.

At least none that I have met. But there are, however, managers throughout organizations at all different levels and on many different teams. So how do leaders vs. managers stack up?

What Is A Manager?

Management happens everywhere and there are a lot of different job descriptions out there for managers. We’re all project managers. Some of us project managers may have managers of our own. So what is management?  What are the traits of a good manager? What does a manager do?

Seriously, what do we do?

There’s a lot we do as managers, including managing people and projects. There’s so much more to our roles, but when we distill it, we’re managing things (a project, scope, budget, timeline) and people (our team, our clients, and “managing up” to our own managers). But this applies well to other industries too.

For example, let’s take a totally different industry than ours to draw parallels, “Executive Chef”. In this instance, they manage things—the menu, the kitchen, the food—and people—the chefs, the servers, and sometimes the diners. So what’s the difference between a manager and a leader?

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What Is A Leader?

Although “leader” may not be a specific role in a business, there are traits and qualities that leaders share in their roles. Leaders are usually seen as steering a group of people or an organization.

What does leading a group of people take? Can only CEOs and department heads be leaders? Are people born as leaders? What are the traits of a good leader? What do leaders do? I provide some insight into these leadership-related questions below.

What Is Leadership To You?

To be honest, I struggled a bit to write this article. I feel passionately that managers and leaders are not mutually exclusive. There’s not an easy way to define the difference between managers and leaders.

However, in the context of project management specifically, I have two points about leadership:

  1. There are great leaders that get the job done, effectively complete work and projects, and even ensure their projects are completed profitably. They may not be hugely inspiring, or leaders in themselves, but they keep the cogs running and do it well.
  2. You need leaders to inspire and create change. Perhaps they’re not as deep in the details, but their teams enjoy working with them and they raise everyone to a common goal. Leaders know how to spot a broken process and coach their teams to fix it.

I posed this to some family and friends. Everyone had similar things to say:

“Good managers need to know how to lead. They should recognize that they have authority over their workers but shouldn’t feel above helping them with their work.”

“There can be leaders that aren’t managers yet. There are managers that shouldn’t be because they can’t or don’t know how to lead.”

It was interesting from these points that they felt managers need to be good leaders. In this context, people with authority over people should also be leaders. But is that true to project managers specifically?

In project management, it’s important we lead. Honing your management style is beneficial, but overall leading your team to grow and improve makes better projects and outcomes.

Additionally, leveraging leadership traits on your projects can motivate teams to become more efficient. With that, projects come in on time, under budget, and people genuinely enjoy their work. That means lots of great things for you as a project manager including, happy clients and line managers. So what are some key differences in management vs. leadership?

Manager vs. Leader: 5 Differences That Set Them Apart

There are obvious differences between the two roles. However, that doesn’t make one of these roles excel over another. These roles and personality types are equally important and beneficial in their own ways. Without one, the other would fall. It truly is a unique dependency that works to keep the engine well-oiled throughout successful organizations.

So what makes a good manager? What are some key differences the managers take care of that are separate from leaders?

1. Executing vs. Improving

Managers are amazing at executing. If there’s a specific process in place, they will execute over and over again until they and their team nails it. They continue to make that process work as effectively as possible.

Leaders often focus on improvement. How can we improve the process? Even if the process works well, how can we spot issues and fix them for the future? (themselves/others)

2. Being meticulous vs. Being a mentor

Managers need to be meticulous. A manager can review a SOW you’ve written and spot things you’ve missed, errors in your scope details, payment terms, etc. They are the pros on these items as they have been groomed to spot them time and time again.

Meanwhile, mentoring is a beneficial trait of a leader. Let’s take the SOW example, a good leader will tell you the mistakes they caught, why they’re important to resolve, and how to avoid them in the future. A leader fosters growth within their team.

3. Striving for success vs. Challenging success

A manager strives for success. That could mean successful completion/acceptance of a project and is happy to pat their team on the back once complete.

A leader challenges the definition of success. Although something was delivered well, how can we sit down in a retrospective for example, and tackle potential hiccups we had along the way.

4. Task-oriented vs. Delegatory

Managers know how to make goals and make them reality. They are often task-oriented and want to ensure items are completed and crossed off the list.

Leaders excel at delegation of tasks and have trust in the people they’ve delegated to. They know when to let go of the reigns.

5. Do-ers vs. Motivators

Managers are excellent “do-ers”. They take the time to detail a plan, layout the parts, and see it followed through. They have a grasp of how long tasks take and why because they dig in and get familiar with their team’s work.

Meanwhile, leaders tend to focus more on motivating teams. Encouraging others to work efficiently and effectively is a great characteristic of a leader. They set goals and empower their teams to work towards them in their own ways.

manager vs leader infographic

What Do You Think?

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list. There are so many fabulous qualities of the two roles. However, at a high level, these tweaks and changes helped me move from micro-managing to providing the tools my team needed to get the job done on their own. For example, improving the process and ensuring we’re sticking to new processes are a good blend of management and leading, and with those improvements, team members know what is expected of them and when, and need less guidance, follow-ups, pokes, to get them there.

What do you think? Do you leverage these qualities to better your team and your day-to-day on projects? Do you have the characteristics of a good manager? Are there specific soft skills you’d like to improve on in terms of your leadership style?

Do you feel like you’re a strong manager or leader?

For even more insight from another DPM expert, check this out: Are You A Task Manager Or Project Leader? (& Does It Matter?)

Worth Checking Out: Noticing Joy: Leading With Human-Centered Project Management

Rebecca Germond
By Rebecca Germond

With a strong foundation in project management and media communications, Rebecca brings more than 10 years of experience managing interactive experiences and digital and social amplifications, including projects for CAA, Mazda, and the Government of Canada.