By Thomas Baker, MSc, PMP
Professor of the Management Skills course in the Master in Project Management Program at the University for International Cooperation.
The UCI Management Skills course is designed to help project managers become better leaders. In fact, there is a significant difference between a manager and a leader.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a manager as: someone who is in charge of a business, department, etc. That fits the project manager role very well: it is a functional position. The same dictionary defines a leader as someone who guides or conducts. This is a subtle shift, but an extremely important one.
Typical duties of a manager include planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, estimating, reporting, monitoring, controlling, and problem solving. The work is tactical and narrowly focused in nature.
A leader is more interested in creating a vision, setting a direction for one or more teams, aligning people around value, motivating, and inspiring.
A scenario to illustrate the difference is an instruction such as “Drive to Halifax in a hybrid gas-electric car with three passengers starting on June 1 and arriving on or before August 31, minimizing expenses along the way. That’s project management.
The leader’s scenario is: Take your spouse and two children on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation across Canada, camping in the most spectacular wilderness areas, meeting amazing new people, deepening your family relationships and having lots and lots of fun!
As you can see, the leadership perspective is much higher level. The project manager has a specific goal, and the leader is interested in those goals, but they are stepping stones to achieve a higher purpose.
“Higher purpose” is in fact a very good term to describe the outlook of a leader. Often, strong leaders become recognized only when they have achieved a goal that was considered impossible, and sometimes only after many years after their lifetime.
When asking students who they consider to be a great leader, examples come from many areas of life, including politics (e.g. Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro), spirituality (priests, lamas, ministers) and education (teachers, principals, professors). But, so far, none of my students has ever named a project manager as an inspiring leader.
This should be a caution to those who practice project management. Is the practice of project management making people short-term goal-oriented at the expense of vision and inspiration? Perhaps.
But it’s not just that. Consider the famous case of Steve Jobs. He is famous for many reasons, founding Apple computer, inventing the Mac and the iPhone, also for founding NeXT computers and Pixar – all very successful businesses. But he is also infamous for his terrible treatment of people, perhaps yelling at staff or insulting them. How could such treatment be reconciled with such success? It is because those who worked with Steve Jobs were not just working for money, not just working to achieve project or departmental goals. They were part of something greater, the vision that Steve Jobs carried like a torch in the night. It was not just to build a PC, but a PC that changed the world! Not just another phone, but a phone that would be revolutionary! For his great vision, he was (generally) forgiven for his outbreaks of anger or criticism. [Caveat: this is not an apology in anyway for disrespectful behaviour.]
Project managers can be great leaders, even if they aren’t at the helm of a large business, church or political organization. Here are the five competences needed:
- Build vision
- Nurture collaboration
- Promote performance
- Cultivate learning
- Ensure results
Vision means a picture that is something bigger than the sum of its parts, a goal worth sacrificing for. Building a computer “for the rest of us”, or ending apartheid, or sending a man to the moon all had a vision as an essential ingredient.
Collaboration. The military system of organization is hierarchical and primarily uses orders or commands to get work done or achieve a mission. Collaboration means working with others in a positive way. Merriam Webster: “work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.”
Promote performance. This is about going beyond conflict and confusion to excellent production, where team members pull together to achieve their work products. This is all about helping the team, removing barriers to performance, incenting, and facilitating.
Cultivating learning is about reframing mistakes so that they become useful learning experiences. Learning from failures. Leaders build in the time to learn, create, and innovate.
Ensure results. The leader is tracking outcomes as they contribute to the vision. It’s not enough to lay out a vision and let the managers and teams work away, consuming financial and other resources, if it doesn’t help to achieve the vision.
In conclusion, leadership is not some sort of rare quality that is endowed only to famous spiritual, business, political or other people. These leaders are also teachers, showing us how we can lead by their example. You can be a leader anywhere, by demonstrating and practising the qualities of leadership.
 Thomas Juli, Leadership Principles for Project Success