Why Project Leaders Are Different from Project Managers - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #749

Why Project Leaders Are Different from Project Managers

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Project leadership and project management do not require the same skills, competencies and behaviours. Likewise, the success factors for project leadership are not the same as the success factors for general leadership. A new study identifies the unique skills, knowledge, behaviours and values at the heart of superior project leadership. 


Large, complex projects are increasingly used to achieve organizational goals. The development of an innovative new product or service, for example, or launching a major strategic initiative will take place in the context of a project team focused on the specific project goal.

The study of projects has emphasized project management — the mechanics involved with the implementation and delivery of the project. The importance of project leadership has somewhat been neglected, perhaps because the differences between project management and project leadership are unclear.

A recent study sponsored by the Association for Project Management gives project leadership its due by focusing specifically on the skills and competencies required to successfully lead projects. The study was based on 38 interviews with mostly project leaders, but also project sponsors, aspiring project leaders, leaders in professions related to projects, and clients. The interviewees were drawn from five multinational companies involved in large, complex projects: Shell, Siemens, defence contractor BAE Systems, health technology leader IQVIA, and engineering and construction giant Jacobs. More than half of the interviewees were in the UK, with the rest coming from Europe, North America and to a lesser extent Africa and Australia. In total, the interviewees represented 500 years of leadership experience.

Based on an analysis of these interviews, the researchers identified five core elements of project leadership:

  • Project leaders must first understand themselves — their strengths and weaknesses and how to leverage their experiences into more effective leadership of the project.
  • Project leaders must construct the organization of the project, allocating roles and responsibilities and establishing the culture.
  • Project leaders must build and develop a project team that will not only deliver on the current project, but also create the company’s project delivery capabilities for future projects.
  • Project leaders must be focused on the outcome and overall deliverables, not on managing day-to-day project schedules, deadlines and immediate deliverables.
  • Project leaders must understand the wider context of the project. For example, how does a project fit into the company’s overall strategy? 

In sum, project leadership involves setting up the project, including recruiting the team, and then focusing on the outcome of the project and how it fits into a wider context. The day-to-day granular tasks of implementing the project are outside of the leader’s purview.

The research also yielded a more specific list of project leadership ‘survival skills’:

  1. Anticipating potential problems and pitfalls.
  2. Making time decisions and judgement calls when required.
  3. Having a wide perspective on what is happening outside as well as within the project.
  4. Building your credibility as a leader and building outside confidence in the team.
  5. Being organizationally intelligent, knowing when and how to engage with the organization.
  6. Encouraging and supporting continuous learning, emphasizing personal as well as team development.
  7. Resolving conflicts and reinforcing collaboration around a common purpose.
  8. Establishing a positive, productive culture that enables the project to succeed.


Because of the specific skills and core elements of project leadership, organizations must not simply promote project management team members into leadership roles and assume that they effortlessly understand and adapt to their new roles. Instead, newly promoted project leaders must be encouraged to recognize that their obligations to the team is more than overseeing the short-term and granular implementation of the project. This will not be easy; it is natural for people in new positions to slide back into their comfort zones, which in this case would mean trying to help or participate in the project tasks that the new leaders just left behind. In the words of the study, newly promoted project leaders must learn to work “on the project” and not “in the project.” Organizations can play a key role by creating the headspace necessary for new project managers to shift to new behaviours and priorities.

In addition, organizations must not assume that their leadership development initiatives and processes can substitute as project leadership development initiatives. While there is some overlap between general leadership and project leadership, project leadership demands specific skillsets beyond general leadership skills, such as structuring the project, allocating roles, and recruiting a team that will meet the project deliverable goals but also enhance project delivery capabilities for the future. For this reason, more organizations are creating dedicated project leadership training sessions and programs.



  Sarah Coleman’s profile at Business Evolution
  Mike Bourne’s profile at Cranfield School of Management
  Cranfield School of Management Executive Education profile at IEDP


Project Leadership: Skills, Behaviours, Knowledge and Values. Sarah Coleman, Mike Bourne. APM Research Fund Series (October 2018). 

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Idea conceived

October 1, 2018

Idea posted

Aug 2019
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