The important difference between leading and managing

There is a crucial role for both managers and leaders in a software project environment.  These two different roles are complimentary and involve different skill sets which need to come to the front at different stages and for different reasons in a project.    They could even be held by the same person. The role of a leader is not necessarily more desirable than that of a manager – in many situations the focus must remain on getting things done and focus on deliverables is often a good thing.  


At other times leadership is required to implement fundamental change and direct the project towards an evolving business requirement.  Too much leadership can be counter-productive especially if the leaders hold divergent views on strategy.  Too much management can lead to overly complex and rigid processes and negative returns for the invested effort.

In many situations, on both small and large software projects, there is no clearly designated leadership and the project manager needs to compensate and take on this role.

Working closely with senior executives to align business requirements with project outcomes is becoming increasingly important in software projects.  Typically the role of project sponsor fulfils this function – but all too often a sponsor is not mandated, is simply unavailable or poorly equipped for the leadership role.

Where there is a designated project sponsor, the software project manager and the project sponsor should co-ordinate their activities and responsibilities to ensure that the strategic business requirements are met and that at the same time the software project is given the space to get the work done.

Business alignment

In software projects the level of definition provided by the business representatives can often be lacking and the rate of change in both the business as well as in the technology environment can be high.  This introduces risk.

The use of iterative software development methodologies such as Agile seeks to address this risk by constantly maintaining close alignment between the project deliverables and the business requirements throughout the life-cycle

Any misalignment between the business and project deliverables cannot always be resolved at the end.  The long delivery cycles associated with linear software development methodologies can increase this risk.    The business as a result does not get what is needed.  So who is responsible for this alignment, the project manager or project leader?

Project managers need to focus on tactical decisions

Software project managers are generally focused on resources – people, time, cost; and occasionally on quality.   They concentrate on milestones and budgets.  To get the job done they need to focus on repeatable and defined process ahead of outcomes.  They need to be fully involved in the tactical decision making that is necessary to progress.

Software project managers often do not have the time to operate outside of the day to day tasks needed to get the work done.  This can unfortunately mean that they can become relatively distant from the overarching business objectives and this can also mean that they can be ineffective in identifying business related issues early enough to make the necessary change.  This poses a risk if there is no clear business leadership role involved in the project to compensate.


Project leaders need to be focussed on outcomes

Project leaders on the other hand should be focused on outcomes rather than the process.

  • Leaders always have very good communication skills.
  • Leaders understand the business drivers and can easily speak the language of the business and can relate to the executive stakeholders.
  • Leaders understand what motivates the modern workforce.
  • Leaders are comfortable with change and can effectively drive change initiatives where necessary.
  • Leaders understand risk and can handle uncertainty because they can clearly see a worthwhile end goal.

Gartner believes that software project management is changing over time more towards a strategic business contribution as IT becomes central to the business operation.  This also reflects the changing role of IT from a technical role to a business enabling role,  and the natural evolution of the successful IT manager into an effective business leadership role that can impact positively on the business in significant ways.

Developing leadership skills is an intentional process

Software project managers often don’t have time to take on any more responsibility.  They can only consider strategic matters if they get their “head out of the scrum” and this transition in perspective requires a new approach to personal productivity.    To some extent the necessary productivity improvement can be achieved through delegation and technology solutions,  but the biggest impact will come from acquiring the necessary leadership mind-set that comes with personal development of the necessary skills by the project manager himself.

The leadership characteristics above, namely communication, business understanding, motivator, change agent, goal focused and tolerant of uncertainty are key requirements for leadership.  Project managers wanting to build up their leadership skills for a new role should be focusing on acquiring and nurturing these skills.