20 August 2007

Project Management and Project Leadership

Project management is typically not an activity carried out at the strategic apex of an organisation. More commonly it’s an activity that happens in middle to lower management, and it’s usually tactical, even though strategic management skills are often needed.

Project management is about the development and execution of a plan, and that plan is in response to a business problem or opportunity that an executive sponsor or other manager has prioritised to the top of the queue.

Project managers and project team members are experts in execution and these days it’s a very important skill.

There is a lot of focus in the PM press at the moment on the importance of soft skills; managing teams, stakeholders, suppliers and sponsors. And a common discussion in management classes – both for project managers and for MBAs is a discussion about the difference between management and leadership. The tendency is for people to think leadership is more important than management, but that’s not true. The real answer is that it depends on the context and environment.

And for the project environment where there are a number of specialists coming together to collaborate as a team there’s even less need to put one person forward as a leader. Everyone should take their turn at leadership, when their skills are called upon, and where they see a gap in the team’s performance as a group. And everyone in the team should step out of the way when someone else has the ball, and let them work to their best within their area of expertise.

What does this mean for project managers? It means that project managers should manage first and lead only when it’s their turn. Let the team members take leadership roles when it’s their time. Project managers should be experts in leading from the rear.

Henry Mintzberg, management guru agrees:

“Isn’t it time to think of our organizations as communities of cooperation, and in so doing put leadership in its place: not gone, but alongside other important social processes.”
And -

“...to recognize that the very use of the word leadership tilts thinking toward the individual and away from the community.”
You can read his article to learn more on his views on leadership here:


  1. Anonymous11:58 pm

    There's one thing I do not agree with. Yes, it would be nice if every member of the team was able to take the leader role whenever it their "turn" but reality isn't so nice. Quite often I work in environments where developers formally fulfilling the "lead development" role are far from what you expect to be the project leadership. The same situation happens with support engineers.

    I think it is so, because leadership isn't on the list of must-haves when you recruit developers or support engineers or even business analysts. Yes, it is very nice when you get in the set, but, be honest, you rarely have two candidates "being equal on everything else."

    That's why it is PM who usually leads the project for most of the time. It's more likely when she knows technical background of whatever is being done and can discuss e.g. technical details with developers. I don't say that's the perfect situation, but that's the reality.

    I'd be very pleased if I worked in the team where there's too much leadership skills spread all over the people, but I'm yet to see that kind of team.

  2. Thanks for the comment Pawell. I know we disagree on some aspects of managing teams and it's good to be reminded of alternative experiences and points of view.

    I guess this is a sitational case, however I do think sharing the leadership role is a good idea for most teams.

    I agree that not everyone is equally capable, but it can be an opportunity to develop staff. As the project leader part of the role should be to develop the staff.

    Besides, I honestly have to defer to others all the time. I lead a team of experts in their area and while I think I know how things shuld be done I usually defer to the other person, both as a matter of pragmatically sharing the work and in getting out of their way while they do their thing.

    It does require having a team who is at least basically competent, and acknowledging that there will be aspects of the work that are imperfect. I usually work in large corporations who can accomodate both of these aspects.

    Anyone else got an opinion?