I have a pet peeve that I need to vent about; it’s about the title ‘Project Manager’.

I just can’t stand it. It’s not really all that descriptive of all that you are being asked to do. I think it minimizes the scope and focus of the role. You are a Project Leader.

To me, the word ‘manager’ denotes something akin to an administrator or a bureaucrat. There’s nothing wrong with being a manager. I was a manager for a long time – it was a difficult role. Proper management of a project is critical, but on most projects you are doing far more than managing.

You are driving and implementing change. You are improving the customer’s condition. You are delivering value. You are leading.

Let me reiterate this – you are not merely managing. You are leading.

In order to be successful I personally believe that it is absolutely essential to understand what it means to be a leader of a project.

You are the CEO of the project. Or you are a general leading troops into battle. Or a great maestro conducting an orchestra. Or whatever. Regardless of the metaphor you chose, the salient fact is that you are in charge. You are personally responsible for the successful delivery of the project. You are accountable.

Project management isn’t just the management of tasks and activities on the project; it’s the leadership of the people who are working on the project.   Once you realize this the chance of you being successful rises by an order of magnitude or more.

You are a leader, as well as:

  • A manager
  • A mentor
  • A teacher
  • A student
  • A counsellor
  • An anthropologist
  • A task master
  • A choreographer
  • A facilitator
  • A problem solver
  • A negotiator
  • An envoy

You can never be a friend. You may have friends working with you on the project, but within the confines of the project they are not your friends. Remember that business is business.

There are other things you don’t want to be. A puppet. A marionette. A magician or fortune teller. And you don’t want to be a scapegoat. If you’re a truly a leader it’s unlikely that you will be any of these.

Leadership, Organization and Appreciation

The role of the project leader boils down to three separate and distinct responsibilities; the first is a leadership, the second is organization and the third is appreciation.


You can go into any bookstore and find literally hundreds of books that deal with the subject of leadership. It is up to you to decide how applicable they are to your particular situation.

From the project perspective my belief with regards to leadership is this: leadership is the ability to give direction in terms of what needs to be done to who needs to do it, as well as to provide guidance on how it should be done.

It is your responsibility as a project leader to drive out ambiguity and replace it with clarity; to replace uncertainty with certainty, supplant chaos and confusion with order and predictability.

You are responsible for the successful delivery of the project; you are responsible for that the methodology being followed on the project is sound and valid; you are responsible for ensuring that the development effort is complete.

One thing you are not responsible is the business outcome of the implementation – that is the responsibility of the project champion.


Organizing is also a core responsibility; it’s what people think of when you say ‘project management’. You have been hired to get things done. Getting things done is best accomplished by having a process or methodology to follow – this will help ensure that the journey as smooth as possible. This is more than a project plan; it’s ensuring that key stakeholders are available when required; that expectations are reasonable and that they are managed; that individuals’ vacations are taken into account; that documents are circulated and signed off in the appropriate timeframe as well as a myriad of other things. If you are making up the process as you go you are likely to fail.

People need to know the steps that the project is going to follow – the planned sequence of events. This is the document that everyone associates with project management – the project schedule.

Every project should have a set of agreed upon ground rules that all parties consent to – rules that define the general accountabilities of the group. Think of them as operating principles for the project. Things like turnaround time for document approvals, how much notice is required for a meeting, what responsibilities meeting attendees have – at a minimum it’s no more than a couple of pages worth but having these rules documented and agreed to at the start will eliminate a great deal of anguish later in the project. But it’s also needed to ensure that the eventual outcome to be reached at the end of the project (or phase, or task) is understood and agreed to by all the stakeholders.

It is important to never lose sight of the fact that you are really an intermediary who is representing the needs and desires of the project champion and the larger organization. You may be a general but the project champion is the commander in chief.

There is another aspect of understanding that both you and your team need to keep in mind. You and your team are engaged in important work that is going deliver benefits to the organization that has hired you. The project is actually a secondary concern. It is a means to an end, and the end is the delivery of the expected benefits. It is very easy to get lost in the details and the day-to-day concerns of the project and lose sight of why the project is actually being undertaken. A well-conceived project will always have a clear line of sight to the value it will deliver, and that value should never become secondary to the execution of the project. If the value isn’t clearly apparent at all times then it’s an indication that there are some fundamental flaws in either the construction of the project or that the raison d’etre of the project has not been well thought out.


Appreciation is a word with multiple meanings. In this case we are using it to denote totally different connotations.

In the first sense, appreciation is used to mean ‘understanding or comprehension’. As the project leader, it is your responsibility to understand the status of the project at all times. The state of the budget and the schedule, who is assigned to what task, upcoming milestones, when the next major deliverable is due, and so on, and so on … there is a myriad of details that must be tracked and reported on. It’s up to you to ensure that it all gets done. It’s also up to you to ensure that everyone else appreciates just exactly what is required of them, as well as when it is required.

In the second sense, appreciation denotes gratitude and thanks. This is closely aligned with leadership; you should always recognize the efforts and contributions of your team. You will only succeed if your team delivers. It is very easy to take them for granted. Don’t.

At the end of the day the terminology might not matter all that much. What really matters is your attitude and actions; whether you call yourself a project manager or project leader is immaterial. Do you see yourself as someone who is executing a project, or someone who is delivering value through the execution of a project? It’s a small shift in perspective but sometimes a small change makes a big difference. Try taking the latter view; you may find that you’ve become a leader.

I’m through venting. Thanks for your indulgence.

PS. I don’t hold out much hope that these views about project leadership are going to catch on. After all, the term ‘project manager’ is entrenched in the business world. You can get an MBA in project management or become certified in project management, but in project leadership? Not so much. And in looking at my CV, in my list of previous roles you’ll see that I was a project manager, not a project leader.

PPS. But should I ever work on another project, I will do my best to not just manage, but to lead.

 photo credit: Sky Noir via photopin cc

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