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The Difference Between Managing and Leading | LiquidPlanner

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The Difference Between Managing and Leading

managing and leading

As a project leadership coach, speaker and trainer, my primary job is to help project managers improve their performance and well-being. I work with PMs so they can manage their projects more efficiently; build stronger relationships with their stakeholders; motivate their team and increase individual confidence.


And invariably, we end up talking about the differences between managing and leading. One of the biggest differentiators between an average and a high-performing project manager is around the degree to which they lead a team versus just managing it.

The managing “push”

Most project managers I come across are managing the project, not leading it. This means that they are very rational and task-oriented. They focus on events and processes such as calculating effort, estimating duration, allocating resources, reporting progress, etc. And the way in which they manage the team is one based on authority, to the tune of: “As the project manager I have authority over my team members. They should do as I tell them because that’s what they get paid for.” This is a “push” approach. Managers generally tell people what to do.

The leadership “pull”

Leadership, on the other hand, is quite different, mainly because it’s more people focused. Leaders don’t typically tell people what to do. Instead, leaders motivate team members by appealing to them at an individual level and by inspiring them to contribute to the overall vision. We call this a “pull” approach. Leaders understand what it is that makes each person tick and can show individuals how their strengths fit into the bigger picture. Leaders are more visionary and inspirational, and not so focused on being skill-centric.

Another way of looking at the comparison is that management is very finite and definite. There is often a right and a wrong process to follow, and the manager upholds that. Leadership, by contrast, is much more open. Leaders ask questions, and listen to and empower people instead of just telling them what’s expected of them.

managing and leading a team

Manage tasks, lead people

I’m not advocating that one is better than the other, or that project managers should stop managing and only lead. Far from it! As project managers we need both. The issue is that most project managers only manage; they never lead. And we need a healthy balance between the two approaches.

As a rule of thumb, you should manage tasks, events and processes, and lead people.

So continue to be skills-focused when you estimate, plan and report on a project, but scale back your managerial mindset when it comes to team meetings, one-on-one’s and motivating the individual. Be more open and have a more people-centric approach when leadership is required. For example, ask team members what they enjoy doing, what ideas they have for how the team can work more effectively, and involve them in the decisions that affect them. Set up one-on-one meetings for their benefit—not yours—and make a real effort to listen more than you speak.

The leadership-manager overlap

There’s a big overlap between management and leadership, and in many situations we should make use of both approaches. Here’s a table that illustrates which style should be most predominant depending on the activity you do.




Estimating and planning the project


Analyzing requirements


Assigning work to individual team members



Preparing for Steering Committee Meetings



Conducting Steering Committee meetings


Conducting team meetings and one-2-one catch ups


Motivating the team


Continuously improving the project and delivering real value to the customer




Improve your leadership skills

So how do you flex your leadership skills? Here’s an exercise that will hone your leadership muscles. To start, choose a person on your team that you can comfortably practice with. Here’s the rundown:

  • Schedule an ideas meeting. Start off by scheduling a meeting where the agenda is not related to a specific task or work assignment, but where you have a conversation about the bigger picture. When you are managing you will typically ask the team member if they have completed the tasks you assigned them and see what might be holding them back. But in this meeting, you want a different kind of agenda – one where you ask questions concerning ideas, goals and how the team member sees his role in the project’s vision. The purpose of this meeting is to build trust and to find out how you can better motivate the individual.
  • Explain what the meeting is about. When you meet with your team member, let him know right off that the purpose of the meeting is to take the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and how he fits into it. Say that you would like to get a better understanding of how he can contribute to the project’s successes. Remember that this is a meeting as much for your team member’s benefit as yours, so make sure you give plenty of time to discuss views and ideas.

the difference between managing and leading

  • Ask open-ended questions. Have a general conversation about the project, the team member’s role and what she feels can be improved. Try not to steer the conversation too much but be open to the possibility that it could take an unexpected turn. As a starting point, you can ask any of the following questions:
    • How do you feel the project is going?
    • Which projects risks do you worry about?
    • Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
    • What suggestions do you have for how we can improve the project?
    • How can I better support you to do a good job?
Practice, practice, practice

As you become more familiar with this non-transactional way of interacting with people, the process will come more naturally to you and you’ll find that you start to take a bigger interest in the people-side of the project. After all, it’s people who deliver projects, not processes.

Whether you’re a project management professional or a team leader who manages projects and aspires to get the best from your team, you need strong skills, good habits and know-how. To learn more, download our eBook, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.”

PM eBook: 5 Practical tips.


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