Project Manager vs Project Leader: 5 Key Differences

By Meidiana Apriliani | Published On: 10 September 2021
Project Manager vs Project Leader: 5 Key Differences

Often confused, this is a significant difference between the roles of a project manager and a project leader!

Project manager and project leader, these two terms at first glance may have the same meaning. However, if you dig deeper, between project leaders and project managers there are some significant differences that are important for you to understand. In general, a project leader can be a project manager, but a project manager is quite difficult to become a project leader.

According to John C. Maxwell in “The 360 Degree Leader”, managers work with processes, while leaders work with people. John Paul Kotter added, the scope of management work includes planning, budgeting, organization, human resources, control, and resolution of problem-solving. Other than that, according to him, leadership includes work such as determining the direction of the project, directing the team, and providing motivation to the team.

What is a Project Leader?

As projects grow more and more complex, organizations may realize that it takes more than a project manager to drive the success of their projects, namely the project leader. The reason is that the project leader can understand the big picture dynamics that affect the project agenda and do not hesitate to issue a project termination recommendation if going forward is not in line with the organization’s strategy.

According to, a project leader is a professional who leads people and keeps projects going. As stated above, the scope of a project leader is about team involvement, team motivation, addressing team needs, and maintaining a healthy and productive work environment.

Some of their main responsibilities include:

  1. Collaborate with department heads, managers, and all stakeholders to develop the team’s main goals and delegate tasks to team members according to their capabilities.
  2. Designing a project timeline
  3. Create and communicate a to-do list of accomplishments to the entire team
  4. Provide emotional support to the whole team to make them feel valued
  5. Maintain the frequency and quality of team communication to find out if there are support requests, changes to assignments, to the latest project status information
  6. Provide feedback on team performance
  7. Creating a healthy and productive workspace
  8. Resolving conflicts in projects
  9. Provide rewards for the achievements of the team and others.

What is a Project Manager?

According to PMBOK® GUIDE Sixth Edition, a project manager is a person assigned by an organization to lead a team that is responsible for achieving project objectives. The role of the project manager is different from the role of the functional manager or operations manager. Generally, functional managers focus on providing management oversight to a functional or business unit. Meanwhile, the operations manager is responsible for ensuring efficient business operations.

According to PMI, a project manager cultivates the people skills needed to develop trust and communication among all project stakeholders. Starting from the sponsor (who will take advantage of the project results and determine the resources to be used), to the project team itself.

In addition to specific technical skills and general management skills, some of the attributes a project manager must possess according to PMBOK are:

  1. Knowledge about project management, the business environment, technical aspects, and other information needed to manage the project effectively.
  2. Skills needed to effectively lead the project team, coordinate the work, collaborate with stakeholders, solve problems, and make decisions
  3. Abilities to develop and manage scope, schedules, budgets, resources, risks, plans, presentations, and reports
  4. Other attributes required to successfully manage the project, such as personality, attitude, ethics, and leadership

Why Are These Roles Important For A Project?

There’s a reason why roles of the project manager and project leader are considered quite important. A project manager itself is basically a technician. They focus primarily on solving problems and ensuring the proper and effective functioning of all processes in the project. This is to ensure that they earn and maintain the trust of all project stakeholders.

Meanwhile, the project leader’s role goes beyond the project management mechanism. They are faced with the challenge of becoming strategists, setting project directions, aligning teams, and motivating teams. They need to develop people-oriented skills because their goal is to influence the team to achieve project goals in a way that meets or exceeds expectations. Thus, the constant presence and motivation of the project leader can make team members perform better and encourage them to have innovative ideas.

Five Differences Between Project Managers and Project Leaders

According to Forbes, there are 5 differences between Project Manager and Project Leader!

1. Project Manager Specialist, Project Leader Generalist

The project manager is responsible for coordinating and keeping the team organized, as well as preventing potential risks and bottlenecks. That’s why they need to be more analytical and detailed in their work. Meanwhile, the project leader focuses more on the big picture of the project. Their goal is to create a vision around the project that will later give team members the motivation to improve their performance.

2. Project Leader Makes Plans, Project Managers Solve Problems

Project leaders are strategists and always have high innovation. Meanwhile, the project manager is tied to a clear schedule and task details to solve a problem. They have to manage any unforeseen issues that may arise during the process.

3. Project Managers Focus on Tasks, Project Leaders Focus on Human Resources

Project leaders are just like project managers, they also want to achieve achievements. However, the project leader still wants to find ways to improve team performance and set team goals. In this case, they try to create the best working atmosphere for the entire project team.

4. Project Leader Motivates Team, While Project Manager Directs Team

Project leaders focus on building good emotional relationships with the team through empathy, sympathy, motivation, and feedback. The goal is to influence and ensure that each team member aligns their personal interests and goals with the interests of the team and the project.

Unlike the project leader, the project manager directs team members and assigns them different tasks depending on the problems and needs that may arise during the project. They have the authority to demand that the team complete their work quickly and precisely because they are responsible for the regularity of the timeline.

5. Project Manager Maintains Status Quo, Project Leader Takes Risk

Project managers aim to maintain the status quo and make sure everything goes according to plan. That’s why they are specialists and their attention is focused on technical and logistical issues.

On the other hand, project leaders always think ahead and set goals. They try to find new ways of doing things. They also motivate the team to innovate and improve continuously. The goal is to create positive change and efficiency.

Leaders and project managers do not always have different roles and this review is also not to say that they are two completely different roles. Due to the fact that a project leader can be a project manager tasked with handling the day-to-day technical tasks of advancing the project which can also be interspersed with his duties to lead, inspire, and motivate the team to do their best work.


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