Skip to main content

From Doing to Managing to Leading

The comparison of leader vs. manager has popped up a couple of times in my LinkedIn feed, usually through a quote that implies that it’s better to be a leader than a manager. Here is one as an example, from someone whose ideas I admire:

Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing. –Tom Peters

While I am hoping that Tom intended to demonstrate the different skills inherent in managing and leading, it is likely taken by most people as an either or statement. If you are a manager, all you do is arrange and tell, but when you are a leader, the choirs sing and the heavens part as you nurture and enhance your team. Most readers would also take those attributes and assign them by proxy to managers and leaders – because surely it’s better to be a leader than a manager.

Related Article: Project Leadership Remains #1 Key to Success

The good news is that like most project managers, you already do both.

Leadership and management are skill sets, not titles.

Unfortunately, many executives expect a project manager to be a leader right from the start without considering their experience and skill set. Most PMs experience a progression from doing to managing to leading, and at different stages in their career will employ different combinations of all three.

Your early career as a project manager is likely more focused on the doing part of your job and not the managing, with leading not even being in the picture yet. You are focused on the basics of project management and what a PM is expected to be minimally competent at – tracking the progress of a project and reporting that progress to the stakeholders. This includes becoming familiar with the tools of the PM trade such as the software, apps and SharePoint sites that your company employs for tracking progress, milestones, and resources. It should also include frequent meetings with the executive sponsor of the project and hopefully a more senior PM. In Situational Leadership, this phase is often described as “you don’t know what you don’t know” and a PM new to their position or new to the company, or both, cannot be expected to have mastered the nuances of the organization. More experienced people in an organization can guide a new PM through the tricky issues, leaving them free to focus on the basics of project management. At this stage in your career, it’s all about growing your skill set and making yourself better.

As you master the doing part of their job and your career progresses, you will be able to start managing more, and the most important part of this managing work will be people work. People on the project team. Their bosses. The executive sponsors. The stakeholders. The customer. Mastering the people part of project management differentiates a good PM from a bad one and sets the stage for you to play a larger leadership role.

This starts with getting members of the project team – and getting them to know, like, and trust you. This is the hard, hairy work of being a good PM where every little thing builds your rapport with your team members, person by person. Observe them closely to understand better their communication style and then adapt your style to theirs so that they may better understand you. This mutually ability to hear and connect with someone achieves the KNOW.

Listen and be emotionally present and engaged when a team member is talking. Don’t talk over top, mansplain or dismiss their thoughts or ideas. Care about them and their ideas. People LIKE others who are like themselves and we are trained to like other people who listen to and respect our ideas.

Build trust one small thing at a time – order the yellow post-its if that’s what makes them happy. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Take their side, always. Protect their flank in meetings with executives, stakeholders, and customers.
Regardless of who they report to in their respective units, team members that know, like, and trust their PM will be more likely to make their deadlines and deliverables and keep the project on-track. Unlike early in your career when the focus was on growing yourself, now it’s on growing others.

Pretty soon, team members will want to work on a project because you are the PM, which is going to give you more options when it comes to building the project team. Now your time spent managing is going to include choosing which team members should be part of the project, which ones need to leave the project, what roles they all play and which ones could lead this project better than you. You will likely also have input into which projects are given resources and how they are prioritized.

That sounds an awful lot like being a leader.

The more you refine your skills and gain responsibility, the more the balance tips toward leading rather than managing and doing.

So, back to Tom Peters. It’s not better to be a leader than a manager. It’s just different. Good project managers demonstrate leadership skills every day and not at the expense of “arranging and telling”. Most projects wouldn’t get off the ground without PM that sets the timelines, plans the meetings and reports to the stakeholders while creating an environment where team members are motivated and engaged. And companies would cease to innovate and grow if c-suite “leaders” weren’t still spending portions of their day on doing and managing things such as analyzing budgets, conducting performance reviews, and leading meetings.

So yes, there is a difference between being a project manager and the executive that is your primary stakeholder, and one does tend to do more leadership type work than the other. But both are valuable to the organization – precisely because they do the right amount of doing, managing and leading.

Comments (4)