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Project Managers are the Better Leaders!

We live in the era of the ‘Digital Revolution’, in which constant change has become the norm. Business models are overthrown, and the way we work is undergoing constant change. It is in these times that people turn to others for direction and guidance; and leaders, who inspire others towards a common goal, are in high demand.

Leader versus Manager

An effective leader is able to build a strong team by inspiring and motivating them to work towards a common goal. A manager, however, focuses on coordinating the efforts of individual people in order to accomplish goals and objectives. Leaders tend to create something new (transformational) whereas managers tend to co-ordinate things that already exist (transactional).

Leadership Qualities

Researchers have tried for a long time to pin down what constitutes a good leader and if these qualities are inherent or can be acquired, without a coherent conclusion.

So, what is it that makes someone look up to another person and follow him or her? People want to believe in something big, something that makes them feel their own existence is important and serves a higher goal. At the same time, they are egoistic beings and would like to see their own needs fulfilled. Captivating people therefore requires creating a strong link between the individual’s aspirations and the higher purpose referenced by the leader. The more skilled a person is at creating this link, the better he or she will be perceived as a leader. This is the art of political thinking – the capacity to skillfully influence other people towards a specific goal.

Political thinking requires strategic awareness in order to put your goal into strategic context, communications and influencing skills as well as a great deal of flexibility to constantly readjust the political strategy in case of changing circumstances. History has produced some extremely skillful leaders in terms of inspirational communications skills, such as Martin Luther King, as well as in terms of the ability to manipulate the masses, such as Hitler. The latter example shows that leadership does not necessarily always follow a good purpose – people will follow strong personalities who they think best represent their interests.

Project Managers versus Functional Managers

Both project and functional managers have to direct work efforts of a number of subordinates, however, only some of them become true inspirational leaders whereas others stay trapped in the role of a manager, simply coordinating tasks of their employees. Why is this so?

First, there are individual strengths and weaknesses as well as the willingness to learn which differs from person to person. Secondly and more importantly, the environment a person is working in is THE most important single driver for the development of leadership skills.

Project Managers of large, cross-functional projects have to face a large number of stakeholders with different, often conflicting interests which make great demands on their political thinking and alignment skills. More often than not do they have to operate in a matrix environment where project resources remain in their line function; yet are assigned to work on the specific project assignment next to their on-going responsibilities. It requires a good amount of motivational skills to mobilize those resources and to drive them to deliver without being their direct line manager.

Project work, although it follows standard processes from initiation to closure, is by nature diversified – every new project represents a unique challenge and provides more opportunities to work with different people from different cultures and different styles, putting the leadership skills to a constant test.

In a functional environment, managers have ongoing responsibility for directing the people and resources within a department to meet corporate and financial objectives. Functional departments, such as the Finance Department, require a good amount of specialist knowledge and very capable resources in that specific field. Work in the line organization entails a large amount of accountability and it can be a challenging task to pursue the line function’s objectives in case of colliding interests from opposed organizational units. However, line function activities tend to be process driven and repetitive in nature and could be regarded therefore as more ‘stable’ than the project environment.


While both environments necessitate capable leaders, the ever-changing project environment of large, cross-functional projects presents a number of challenges to which only real leaders can measure up to. The multitude of stakeholders puts the political skills to a test and the absence of solid reporting lines requires sound communications and influencing skills in order to successfully deliver. Project Managers therefore have a better opportunity of acquiring strong leadership skills through constant training on the job and it is not uncommon for senior and well-experienced Project Managers to change into high caliber management positions. However, in the end, leadership remains a constant journey, and requires, in addition to the optimal environment, the will for constant self-reflection and self-improvement.

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