Distinction between leadership and management is a never-ending debate; what is the difference and what are the roles for the leaders and managers. But when it comes to projects, quite often the discussion is around project management and project managers, and project leadership and the necessity for leadership is in a minor role. A project without leadership is having major challenges to succeed; when projects are lacking the clear vision, it is like driving a car without a destination. You have a technically working vehicle and can drive around and get somewhere, but it will take time and gasoline and there is no guarantee where you will end up to. In projects this means having a project, which is going somewhere, but in reality having difficulties to collaborate towards the same target and focus on essentials, which takes energy out of the productive work.

People related to the project need to be involved and have the inspiration and motivation to do their job and to go even beyond the normal performance. That requires leadership with target-oriented approach. Without a clear vision and mission, it will be challenging to lead the project successfully to the very end. When focusing too much on managing the issues, the danger for the leader is to get lost with the details, not seeing the big picture together with the people anymore. And that is the point when success is lost. Ultimately, it is the people who are making the success.

With people I refer to several kind of stakeholders, such as project team members, functional heads, subject matter experts, customers (internal or external) together with formal and informal leaders. It is not enough to take care of the customers if the project team is missing the leadership. So what is the role of the project leadership?

Leadership in the projects

Project leadership is about the people side of the project. In my opinion it is more than leading the change, it is leading the vision and mission of the project – it is providing something people can believe in to. It is about getting the stakeholders on board and motivated about the project’s mission. And what is most important, it is about getting the project team members on board and inspired and motivated about the project and its vision. A successful project requires collaborative relationship between project manager and the team.

Every project is changing something on the organization culture and behaviour, and in order to have that happen people need to be engaged. It takes time to establish the goals on the cultural and behavioural level and that requires leadership. You can manage the issues and achieve the short-term goals without leadership, but in order to establish the strategic long-term changes it requires people to be fully involved – engaged with their feelings and personal goals. People need to experience the vision with their heart.

Ultimately successful projects need the balance between management and leadership. In practice it means that the project is planned, budgeted, controlled and organised. Parallel to that it means that project team members are collaborating, working towards the same goal and sharing the same vision and mission. And when the project team is engaged and fully on board, the inspiration will spread also to the customers and other vital stakeholders. But you need to lead the team first. On that journey, servant leadership skills are worthwhile to try. Instead of promoting your self as a leader, promote your team and let the people create the success.

Mervi Lamberg
Consultant & Business Coach
noname Consulting, Finland