Be a Leader – Not Just a Project Manager

Fishes Following the LeaderWhat are clients and employers seeking in project managers? It’s not just their management skills. It is also their leadership abilities and, yes, there is a difference.

Robert Kelly is a managing partner at KPS, a project management consultancy and co-founder of #PMChat, a global community of project managers and business leaders that discuss best practices and lessons learned via Twitter. In an article for ESI International’s PM Perspectives Blog, he writes that annually he speaks with “hundreds of project managers from around the world about their experiences with their respective PM colleagues” and “dozens of potential clients about their experiences, expectations and frustrations with regards to the role of a project manager in the enterprise.”

From those conversations he draws this conclusion: “one common denominator among them all is the reference to leadership.” He admits his perspective is anecdotal but one built from a wealth of experience. “I don’t have fancy studies to back up my claims or quotes from popular CIOs, so you are going to have to trust me on this.  If you want to be a value-added (another business term shifting to overuse) member of your organization, then you need to become a leader that manages projects well – a Project Leader.”

Kelly says two things need to be accomplished to move beyond management to leadership: own your project and drive your project. He declares, “Save yourself a lot of grief and be seen as a project leader by owning and driving your projects.”

With regard to ownership, he advises, “Project Managers very rarely have dedicated resources that they manage or have direct responsibility for. Almost everyone I speak with describes a matrix environment, in which they have assigned resources from another manager that ‘owns’ that resource.  Also very common; project managers will explain that they are not subject matter experts and rely on others for that knowledge. These two, very true concepts have too many project managers simply running weekly meetings and completing project documents.”

Driving a project means a project manager – make that project leader – has to acknowledge a lack of subject knowledge while still engaging his or her term. “Unfortunately, when project managers do not know enough about a particular department/function on their team they tend to back off and not really question/push that person,” Kelly says. “However, within reason you must stretch your team to ensure they are not being ‘comfortable’ with their estimates and delivery.  This is one you want to be careful with, as most people want to do good work and will push themselves.”

Andrew Makar, an author and IT program manager, agrees with Kelly. In an article at, he says, “Effective project managers take responsibility to achieve the results defined by the project; this means you may not be able to simply delegate tasks to others and wait for the status update.”

Kelly also makes the point that leaders are proactive while managers are reactive. He cites the example of a leader asking where a project stands before a meeting while a manager waits until the meeting to find out a benchmark has not been met and the project needs to be delayed.

Makar says another important element of leadership is courage. “It takes courage to communicate that there are problems with the project and to ask for help. It takes courage to have a conversation with a team member who isn’t performing well or to talk with a peer who isn’t providing the necessary support. It takes courage to make the hard decisions to cancel a project to save funding or to let an employee know they no longer have a position with the project,” he says.



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Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping,, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.