In today’s project-driven business landscape, project managers are an indispensable part of completing projects successfully. But a closely related and equally important discipline receives much less attention: project leadership.
Maybe it’s because one is a fairly standard job title and the other isn’t. Maybe it’s because project management has clearly standardized definitions (thanks to the Project Management Institute and PMBOK) and certifications like the PMP, while project leadership has neither.
Whatever the reason, it’s time to bring clarity and definition to the concept of project leadership. Let’s define this together and then examine why we can confidently say that project leadership is key to project success.
What is project leadership?
Project leadership is the application of the principles and characteristics of leadership within the context of projects and project-managed workflows. Project leadership is people-oriented and involves directing, guiding, inspiring, and (at times) correcting members of the project team, as well as contributing to or heading up project governance. The ultimate goal of project leadership is achieving project success through effectively leading the team through project completion.
Positional and appointed leaders are often expected to exhibit project leadership, as are project managers (whether they have org chart authority or not). But regardless of a person’s rank or status, anyone — including those in non-leadership roles — can offer project leadership when needed.
Why leadership is important in project management
Project leadership matters within the discipline of project management because people are people.
People aren’t cogs in a machine, and they aren’t robots. They get tired. They grow disinterested in a particular project or assignment. And — unfortunately — they fight with one another.
If project management is concerned with successfully delivering projects on time and on budget, then it absolutely must be concerned with the people doing the tasks that lead to the desired outcome. Project leadership is the element that focuses on the people themselves: what they need to do their best work, what’s stopping them or slowing them down, and what’s creating frustration.
What is a project leader?
Anyone who leads a project is a project leader.
Sounds simple, right? But think about the last project you were involved with.
Who led the project? Was it the project manager? The highest-ranking member of management? The technical lead or senior specialist? The new hire that started six months ago?
Any or all of these (yes, even the new guy) could exhibit leadership — yet it isn’t automatic for any of them.
Of course, there will be an appointed or de facto project leader in many organizations. It could be the project manager or an individual in charge of a project team.
If you’re not sure who the project leader is on a given project, look for who steps away from the work and gets involved in solving people-problems. That’s your project leader.
Project management vs. project leadership: What’s the difference?
Project management and project leadership are similar terms, and it’s not uncommon to see them used interchangeably. But there are key differences here.
Project management is a broad discipline that — let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you already have a good sense of what this is. It’s schedules, timelines, workflows, and project scopes — all the project-related and schedule-related details you need to work out for a project to succeed.
Developed organizations are more likely to hire dedicated staff or even staff up a project management office. But even if no one on your team has this title, someone’s doing some project management work.
Looking to expand your project management toolkit (even if you’re an unofficial project manager or only wear the PM hat from time to time)? Check out our top 8 project management book recommendations.
Where project management focuses on the work itself and all the tasks, workflows, and data that support that work, project leadership focuses on the people doing the work.
“Project leader” is much less common as a distinct job title, though. You might have someone in another specific role designated the project leader or project lead, but it isn’t typically a standalone occupation in the way that "project manager" is.
Is a project manager still a leader?
Yes. At least, they should be.
This is where things get a little murky. Ideally, you want your project manager to be able to rally the troops and inspire the team, not just point them to the right task or line item.
The best project managers are also natural people-oriented leaders who can easily step in and solve those human conflicts while they continue juggling schedules and reports.
Sometimes the project manager is the official or unofficial project leader, but not always. Even if there’s another project leader, PMs should still exhibit leadership qualities when needed.
Learn more about the connections between leadership, project management, and teamwork in Leadership and teamwork: 10 ways leaders can help their teams.
How leadership and management work together
Successfully carrying out a project requires project leadership and management working in harmony.
The two concepts are intrinsically connected. It’s both overstating and oversimplifying to call them two sides to the same coin — there’s too much overlap for that analogy. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a project that succeeds without appropriate attention given to the tasks, schedules, and workflow that make up the project (management) and the people who make the project happen (leadership).
The project leadership matrix: 4 styles of leadership
We can describe project leadership using four leadership styles based on The Project Leadership Matrix. Leaders tend to gravitate toward one of these as a default mode, but skilled leaders will employ any of the four styles when the situation calls for them.
You may also notice a natural distinction here between leadership and management, with managers concerned with tasks and leaders concerned with people. This isn’t an impenetrable line, but it is a helpful generalization.
Here are the four types in the matrix with some quick explanations:
Reactive leadership tends to focus on the here and now, the most immediate and most pressing. As a reactive people leader, you enjoy dealing with interpersonal conflict that’s ongoing and happening right now, as well as any other day-to-day people-oriented issues.
Reactive task management
Reactive managers and leaders put out a lot of fires (whether that’s a person or a product on fire), and they may just enjoy it. Reactive task management focuses on the here and now and applies it to the work at hand. What’s happening right this second that threatens the project or the business? The stuff that needs to be solved yesterday, not six months from now, is where the reactive task manager spends their focus.
Proactive leaders look at the long-term strategy and vision. The people-oriented proactive leaders look at the long-term goals and outcomes involving people: Rather than solve today’s argument, the proactive people-leader looks for ways to build relationships over time, betting that increased trust will decrease arguments. Vision-casting, big goals, and bigger initiatives live here.
Proactive task management
The proactive task-oriented manager doesn’t like fighting fires. Instead, this leader enjoys looking down the road and engaging in risk management before those risks arrive and burst into flame. The planning and scheduling component of project management is almost fun for this type of leader.
7 key elements of successful project leadership
There’s no magic formula to follow that’ll turn someone into a successful project leader, nor is there a single personality type that always wins the day. But there are some recurring themes. Below are seven elements that most successful project leaders share, despite many other and often significant differences.
By the way, you may notice that several of these traits are hallmarks of successful project managers, too. This isn’t coincidental: while we’ve identified several clear differences between project management and project leadership, there’s plenty of overlap — especially when you start defining success in both.
1) Good communication
Solving the needs and concerns of the people within your project requires strong, clear communication skills. This is the most important element on the list because, without it, how can leaders convey or execute everything that follows?
Leading for project success requires clear communication regardless of your personality or leadership style. This vital element unlocks all sorts of additional competencies, including better decision-making, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and improvements in building trust.
2) Enthusiasm and positivity
When you get in the trenches with people and their problems, you have to be proactive to avoid getting dragged down. Keeping up enthusiasm and positivity is essential as a leader: You’re going to people who are already unenthused and may be displaying negativity. Helping them change or adjust requires contrast, not more of the same.
Now, we aren’t suggesting toxic positivity or going Pollyanna on your team are the right way to go (author and speaker Chris Yeh points out that too much enthusiasm breeds dislike). You can and should acknowledge when things aren’t how they should be. The key is to do so in an enthusiastic, forward-looking, solution-oriented way.
3) Building and maintaining relationships
Winning friends and influencing people requires showing people that you care. Remember, people aren’t cogs in your project’s machine. They’re complex. Getting positive responses, strong productivity, and warm interpersonal interactions requires effort to build relationships and maintain them over time.
Checking in with people — both in project-related ways and completely disconnected from projects — is a great way to build these relationships.
Consider a project team lunch or virtual coffee break where at least a portion of the time is a “work talk-free zone.” Those unstructured social moments are key to building and maintaining relationships.
4) Awareness and mindfulness
Influencing people requires maintaining awareness of their current state and carefully reading any verbal or nonverbal cues they’re sending. Effective leaders remain aware of small details — a change in gait on the way to the break room, a shift in tone over email or Slack, and so on.
Not every change requires exploration or intervention — that’s micromanaging. But when something interpersonal or performance-related pops up, mindful leaders can put that thing into a context that may suggest a course of action.
5) Commitment and motivation
To inspire and motivate a team, you must first be committed to the team’s goals and the company’s vision yourself. You’ll also need a healthy dose of intrinsic motivation — something that’s true of just about any leadership position.
When you regularly demonstrate and model these attributes, you’ll begin to develop commitment and instill motivation in the team members you lead.
6) Flexibility and creativity
When you took a job as a leader or manager, you signed up for chaos.
Think about it: If projects always went according to plan, a whole lot of middle managers and leaders would be looking for a new line of work. The rare combination of both flexibility and creativity is what makes an excellent leader stand apart. When things don’t go as expected (and this is inevitable), the flexible leader isn’t rattled. And the creative leader finds new and unexpected ways to resolve the challenges, further inspiring the team and keeping it on track.
7) Leading by example
Last, effective project leaders don’t just say; they do. If you’re encouraging a team member to listen carefully and respond more slowly, ask yourself whether that’s your habit. As you work to resolve interpersonal conflict caused by someone’s short temper, evaluate yours. As you push people to focus and go the extra mile, make sure you aren’t kicking your feet up and relaxing.
It’s not an overstatement to say the example you set as a project leader sets the tone for the entire project.
Benefits of great project leadership
When project teams enjoy great project leadership, it’s amazing what can happen. Imagine the levels of project success teams in your organization could accomplish if they all enjoyed the following benefits of outstanding project leadership.
Accomplish work in a timely manner
A good leader motivates a team to achieve project milestones on time and uses leadership skills to smooth the path toward successful project delivery. Thanks to both effective leadership and strong project management skills, deliverables flow as they should without delay.
Have better team member relationships
The role of project leaders is people-centric. As a team leader, you’ll engage in plenty of mentoring and conflict resolution across lengthy project execution. Thanks to your strong team management, your team members communicate well, trust each other, and resolve conflict quickly.
Navigate conflicts and roadblocks successfully
Even for high-performance teams with high trust levels, conflict is inevitable. And no matter how skilled you are at managing projects, you’ll still encounter roadblocks along the way. But thanks to strong project leadership, teams can successfully navigate these challenges and keep moving forward.
Make project direction clear and seamless
Without strong project leadership, project direction can quickly become muddled. Multiple stakeholders vie for competing priorities, leaving the project team in the middle, unsure of which direction to proceed.
But with effective project leadership, the direction is never in doubt: whenever questions arise, everyone knows who to ask and trusts that that leader will give accurate guidance.
Engage more effectively with stakeholders
Project stakeholders up and down your organizational hierarchy will engage better with projects helmed by a strong leader who communicates clearly. With better stakeholder engagement, projects will be primed for success thanks to better stakeholder support (such as closer scrutiny and feedback during project planning).
Develop effective leaders in project management with Teamwork
Effective project leadership is vital for the success of your project teams, just as strong project management is vital for the project's success. These two disciplines and roles have different focuses but the same ultimate goal: the successful delivery of a project.
A project management plan that successfully maps your way through an upcoming project is a critical strategic document that project managers and leaders rely on to achieve project success. But creating a good one presents all sorts of challenges.
Teamwork is the project software platform that meets the needs of both project leaders and project managers. With a robust yet friendly interface and a wealth of powerful templates, Teamwork makes it easy to plan and track projects.
Learn more by checking out part of our project management guide that shows you how to create a project management template that actually works.