Daniel Minahan, MSPM, PMP, CM, CAPM, CSM
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Project Manager, Project Leader, what’s the difference? Well, if done correctly there can be a great difference with one goal in mind, project execution.

Leadership and leader are thrown around in a way that sometimes can allude to those leading or managing projects, missions, etc., but are we talking about management or leadership?

Management is defined as the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.

Leadership is defined as the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.

Very similar, but truly different roles in a business setting. Leader is thrown around all too often as someone in charge, but shouldn’t we leave that title to someone who can actually lead? In the management definition, it doesn’t say they “lead”, but deal or control. Everyone knows some managers that deal or control, but can’t lead. For the leader it does not say they are good at dealing or controlling, but rather leading or commanding. How many leaders have we known that were not good at paperwork, not very organized, or could not draft a technical document, but they could lead people all day to accomplish anything? Very different. The military has seen both before in the role of Officer and Noncommissioned Officer (NCO). There are plenty of great Officers that were managers and leaders and NCOs that were managers and leaders; however, in the context of project management, they both have roles to fill. The military does project management all the time in most aspects of daily operations. Deployments are a project, exercises in the field are projects, and even going to the range is a project. If we follow the five phases of project management from the Project Management Body of Knowledge, here’s an example of a qualification range (not all inclusive as a range is a lot more than below):

Initiating – Company or Battalion Commander determines the need for a qualification range to get the troops qualified. An officer in charge (OIC) and noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) are selected to run the range.

Planning – The OIC and NCOIC plan the entire range from ammo pickup, to troop movement to the range, to firing, and then closing the range. Every last detail is planned to ensure success.

Executing – The day starts with vehicles being lined up outside the arms room and weapons draw. The NCOIC is running around executing the entire plan from the beginning of the morning, through the range, and to the last firing order.

Monitoring and Controlling – The NCOIC is ensuring his team leads are executing their duties and all the deliverables are being delivered (e.g., weapons draw, vehicles lined up, troops arriving, range being set up for firing, firing orders qualifying, and paperwork being collected on the troops qualifying).

Closing – Final deliverables of all firers qualified, range cleanup, weapon turn in, and after action review are all delivered. The NCOIC releases the troops and team leads and ensures the OIC is good to go with all the paperwork necessary for the commander.

Replace the OIC with project manager and NCOIC with project leader. The OIC is responsible for the entire project and will do the majority of the planning, whereas the NCOIC will do the majority of the execution (in a perfect environment). The OIC is present the entire time, but it is the NCOIC who usually has more experience and knowledge of the mission or project to lead the troops. Usually a Lieutenant is given the responsibilty of being the OIC and a senior Staff Sergeant or Sergeant First Class (U.S. Army) will be the NCOIC. The Lieutenant, as the OIC or project manager, is trained to be a manager and the NCOIC has been groomed to be a leader. Both are necessary to accomplish the mission and the same is true in project management.

Watching Band of Brothers last night, episode “The Breaking Point”, I saw what I was explaining above in action. This episode was about the final days in Bastogne before they launched the attack on the town of Foy. The theme was about the lack of leadership in their company commander (manager) and the company First Sergeant, played by Donnie Wahlberg, portraying the true leader he was. We also saw both a great manager and leader in action, CPT Speirs, who at the time was maybe beyond what is acceptable in today’s military, but followed by many and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army.

In the simplest form, a great leader has people willing to follow, while a manager may have those willing, but also unwilling to follow, but are required to due to the position they hold.

A great project manager doesn’t need to be the expert on the project, but rather a solid manager that deals and controls people. The project leader should be your expert and should leave the managerial aspects to the project manager. In a perfect world the project manager will be both manager and leader, but reality sets in and it is not always the case, so why not have both?

There are many names for the leader on the project, from subject matter expert to project engineer to name a few, but why not establish the establish the position.

Are you a better project manager or project leader?