Leadership & Management in Projects – Two sides of the same coin

Management and leadership are two words that are frequently tossed around without much regard to how they’re used.

It’s easy to do because there is no clear line between the two. The truth is, most of the time distinguishing between leadership and management doesn’t matter. Leadership involves managing and management involves leading. Project managers do both. Still, there are some cases where it’s important to know the differences and similarities between the two – particularly for students studying the subjects.

Formally, and academically, leadership and management are two completely separate concepts, with many specific definitions for both. Leadership is usually described as an influence process by an individual toward a group in the pursuit of achieving a set of goals or objectives. It also involves setting those goals and objectives for the organization to pursue. No simple, all-inclusive definition of leadership exists. Still, most generally accepted definitions include similar elements encompassed in that explanation.

Management is the process of coordinating, influencing, and organizing the activities in an organization in the achievement business goals. BusinessDictionary.com defines management as, “the organization and coordination of the activities of a business in order to achieve defined objectives.” Another way to look at management is deciding on the best and most effective way to get from point A to point B.

So, leaders set objectives and direction while managers conduct the efforts necessary to achieve them. Where leadership is described as affecting change, management is described as creating order. In theory, the two functions – even though they may be carried out by the same person – are separate.

In practice, things don’t fit into their own little boxes quite so neatly. As already stated, management tasks involve leadership activities and leadership tasks involve management activities. While the two concepts are still independent, there is a lot of overlap between the two. It’s in this space in between that most people operate. Koontz and O’Donnell provided one of the most well-known and accepted lists of management functions and activities. All management activities fall into at least one of the following five functions:

  • Planning
  • Organizing
  • Staffing
  • Directing
  • Controlling

Planning involves deciding on courses of action to take in the achievement of organizational goals. It includes considering and deciding ‘how’ to do the ‘what’. This particular function can fall into both categories of leadership and management. Considering planning functions in project management doesn’t take a lot of imagination. The vast majority of activities in the run up to project execution involve planning, including scheduling, budgeting, risk planning, and communication planning – to name only a few. Planning functions are essential to project management and encompass tasks which can be classified as both leadership and management.

Organizing involves bringing together the collections of resources necessary to get down to the work of achieving the goals. This function falls mostly into the category of management. Project managers spend a considerable amount of time organizing the resources necessary to successfully execute projects. Organizing material resources, human resources, financial resources, and other limited assets which need to be utilized as efficiently and effectively as possible.


Staffing addresses the human resource issues of an organization. Hiring, removing, training, promoting, and even rewarding the people who make up an organization. Often it includes creating new positions, and staffing them. Depending on the specific activity involved at a given time, staffing can be a function of both management and leadership. Some projects involve only a single individual, but most involve multiple people. Project team members, both internal and external, need to be managed and led. Staffing issues are faced regularly by project managers, even on short term projects.

Directing is the most leadership-centered function of the five. It includes supervision, motivation, communication, and many other activities involved in deciding what it is the organization is going to do. This is the area where goals and objectives for the whole group are set. While this can sometimes be a management task, it is most often and closely associated with leadership. The degree of directing control by project managers varies from project to project. Leadership-based directing authority often rests with an external owner or project sponsor, but not exclusively. Management-based directing is a central part of a PM’s daily activities, especially during the execution stages of a project.

Controlling refers to measuring organizational performance against planned baseline targets and examining the amount of deviation from set targets. As Peter Drucker said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Controlling extends beyond performance management to include establishing the standards and systems of measurement for the metrics you want to monitor, as well as establishing preventative measures to ensure limits on deviation from the beginning. This is most frequently performed as a management task, but the use of the information can be very important to leadership in establishing future targets and direction. From project selection to completion, and every step of the way in between, monitoring and controlling is an area of responsibility for the whole project team, managed and led by the project manager. Leadership is exercised in setting quality management standards and assurance procedures. Management is exercised in maintaining those standards. Leadership once again comes into action when making decisions regarding future actions based on the control data gathered and evaluated.

In the practical world, there is more overlap between management and leadership tasks than there is separation. Most of the time, we are operating in the space in between, as the associated diagram illustrates.romanelli 10102018a

Project management is a multidisciplinary skill, involving the practice of abilities in a wide variety of areas. In order to be a consistently effective project manager, PM’s need to also master the skills involved in leadership and management.

Project management skills should be updated regularly in order to stay sharp. Continuing training, education, and development should focus on the skills of management and leadership, as well as subject-specific material. That can include formal training to log PDUs, or simply staying current by reading articles on sites such as this one. However, we choose to do it, broader subject knowledge in management and leadership should be part of the content. 

Mark Romanelli

Mark Romanelli is a full-time lecturer in the Sports, Culture, and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. His curriculum includes courses in Project Management and Strategic Project Development. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management.