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Is there any difference between a project leader and a project manager? Is their involvement different in any aspect?

What are the tasks performed by project managers? What are the tasks performed by project leaders?

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Possible dup of pm.stackexchange.com/questions/1003/… –  Tiago Cardoso Apr 5 '11 at 13:35
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The question referenced was about functional managers and project managers, which are official management positions. This isn't a duplicate. –  jmort253 Apr 6 '11 at 4:04
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I feel like a lot more detail is required for a "great" answer to be provided. Very context-driven question. –  Eric Willeke Apr 12 '11 at 3:41
    
changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/articles/… in short: they have basically nothing in common –  Sklivvz Nov 17 '13 at 23:46
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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The answer to the question pretty much depends on definitions of project leader and project manager. While the latter, despite being interpreted to some point, is something which most of us perceive in a similar manner, the former will vary vastly, depending on who you ask.

For me project leader is someone who genuinely lead people in the project. Something who has the vision and is able to get people signed in to this vision and engaged. In means that in one project functional manager can be project leader, in another it would be project manager and in other one of sponsors or stakeholders.

Also if you scale it down to one-man projects there's probably project leader (the only person in the project, who is probably just a developer by the way) and there's definitely no project manager whatsoever.

If you scale a project up to the point where you have multiple project managers responsible for specific modules or parts a project leader would be probably someone sponsor who is high enough in the hierarchy to take responsibility for the whole project.

And if we keep a definition like that: you can have project where you have project manager (who is dealing with all typical project management stuff) and no project leader. By the way this wouldn't be the best project to work at, as there as fairly small chances it would be a success.

UPDATE:

Here is a great article, Are You a Manager or a Leader, that clearly and objectively, as well as with a nice diagram, describes the differences between leadership and management.

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So it's clear those are different positions... I'll do my futher questioning in another question since I still can't clearly see what specifically is "project management stuff". –  apacay Apr 5 '11 at 15:40
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I agree - I'd also add the trait of servant leadership. In other words, you develop the skill of facilitating the team's progress rather than directing it, helping to clear obstructions for them, coach them through tough spots and provide objective advice about how to solve problems. Easy to say - it takes time to develop well. –  Chris R Chapman Apr 25 '11 at 2:27
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You may have a few project leaders in a big project, not all have to be project managers. From a business perspective, a project leader is the one that:

  • promotes the change in a positive manner
  • exchange ideas and brings on-board the detractors
  • use their influence to make sure the PM's objectives are met

Now, all the above can and should be used by the PM. So in general:

Every project has a project manager, but not every project has a project leader. And you could have more than one project leader if you are lucky.

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So you are saying that the Project leader is a functional leader, and a PM... What does a PM do then? –  apacay Apr 5 '11 at 13:49
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@apacay, I am not saying that a project leader is a functional manager. You are confusing the word leader with manager. My point is that you may have a developer that is a leader in your project, and helps the PM drive the progress. Also, I am saying that you might have no leaders in the project. Being the PM means that you are the leader by role but not necessary by attitude. It is important to know the difference between being call the leader and being a leader. Hope this clarifies. –  Geo Apr 5 '11 at 18:51
    
Correct me if Im confusing things again but, I deduce you mean 'project leader' is a leader by attitude and "casual" (or "informal") right hand to the PM? –  apacay Apr 5 '11 at 20:39
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@apacay - "You don't need a title to be a leader". Project leader isn't an official title. It's an attitude, a character trait. –  jmort253 Apr 6 '11 at 4:00
    
@jmort253, and to be a PM you do? –  apacay Apr 6 '11 at 12:45
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Not sure what you mean by project leaders.

There are two ways to interpret this question.

One is the designation “Project Lead” or “Technical Leads” used in multiple organizations.

If this is your interpretation the differences are simple:

  1. Project Leaders are primarily responsible for aspects or modules of a project (usually technical in case of Project Technical Leads) sometimes even functional aspects of the project. They are usually not concerned with operational details e.g. documentation, scope control, staffing etc. which in most cases are handled by project managers.
  2. It is typical to have multiple project leads or tech leads in a project, but then large scale projects also have multiple project managers so that isn’t a real distinction. But then most companies usually start out standard projects with one project manager and multiple project leaders.
  3. Technical Leaders are typically responsible for design and documentation of the design in most organizations that follow BDUF methodologies where else Project Managers are usually responsible for areas like planning.
  4. Project Technical Leaders are responsible for running small technical teams under the oversight of a manger who is supposed to keep these teams functional from an operational aspect.

[edit based on request in comment]

Project management role compared to a Team Leader’s role is much less technical (unless you are a technical manager) and is much more operational. Roles range in multiple areas.

  1. Operational – Project planning, estimations (teams should be involved in this), deciding with the client which features you will build (technically called “Scoping”), controlling random changes from happening in the last moment (traditional PM’s like to refer to this as “Scope control” but I feel that the terminology is overrated in these cases). In some cases it also includes seeing to it that people have the right resources (e.g. the right amount of RAM in their laptops etc.) to get their work done. Basically keep the project moving and seeing to it that operational glitches do not slow down the project.
  2. Communication – communicating delays to the client, clearing confusion, demoing the builds in some cases etc.
  3. People Aspects – talking to people and keeping a track of their likes, dislikes, aspirations and helping them grow in specific areas of their interest.
  4. Motivational aspects – spending time with the team, figuring out ways to keep the motivations high, get right recognition to the right people etc.

[/edit based on request in comment]

In smaller organizations which focus on innovation both designations often mean similar things since people are allowed to play multiple roles. I’ve also seen projects being executed with any project manager per say where the project leader was playing the role of the project manager and doing some basic status reporting.

The other way to interpret the question and the word “project leader” is a person who leads a project or a team. E.g. Steve Jobs is a classic example of a leader for the Macintosh team but most people would not call him a manager. He is known for his leadership qualities, which include vision about which products will work, which features will make a product click, which interfaces will have the biggest appeal and how to introduce the products on stage where he practically plays the face of the team. The skills of leadership don’t essentially always make you a good manager. Qualities of a Project Leader are a good plus to have but management has a scope which includes other areas particularly, understanding, working with, empathizing with, helping growth and getting all operational impediments (more colloquially reffered to as “Bullshit”) cleared.

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So your interpretation is that project lead and technical/functional lead means this you've exposed... Can you edit and describe a lil bit more the PM responabilities? By the way, the "other way" is not what I ment.. It's too "Macro" for what I was looking for. –  apacay Apr 5 '11 at 15:31
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It is a very small linguistic difference between the two titles. In my experience, there are only a couple of differences:

  • A project manager is almost always involved in budgets, purchasing, and approvals whereas a project lead tends to be an advisor instead of a decision maker.
  • A project manager is more often involved in HR/staffing related decisions than a project lead
  • A project manager tends to be person who starts, organizes, "sells" a project to management, gets it staffed, monitors the project, deploys it, and closes out a project. A project lead roles normally starts after the project is a "go"

I find that the distinction between the two titles is only mildly useful. In a large organization with long running, multi-phase projects, it might be a more useful distinction.

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I have noticed (in practice) three different approaches to the 'difference' between Project Manager and Project Leader:

  1. The 'titles' are used interchangeable. No difference whatsoever.
  2. A company prefers the term 'project leader' because calling them 'managers' would imply they are, well, managers, just like Unit managers or something like that who have a team directly working for them. Since they don't want to give or imply the poor PM guy has the the same privileges and benefits, or just don't want to confuse them with 'real' managers, they prefer to not call them manager. But what they do is real PM stuff. It's purely semantic.
  3. The Project manager oversees the whole project, while project leaders are responsible for sub-projects (or large work packages). They are often technical specialists also taking responsibility over the delivery of a specific deliverable. But they are below the project manager in the hierarchy.
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