Project Leader vs. Project Manager: Definitions and Key Differences

Updated July 21, 2022

If you are interested in a career in project management, both project leader or project manager roles are instrumental in seeing projects successfully completed. While these positions are often treated as interchangeable, there are key differences that can impact which is a better fit for your interests and personality. Understanding and identifying which role is right for you can take research and self-reflection.

In this article, we will define and compare the positions of project manager and project leader so you’ll understand which tasks belong to each role and what the distinctions are. We’ll also explore some other similar careers related to the field of project management.

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What is a project leader?

A project leader is a professional who leads people and makes sure a project is carried through. The project leader engages the team, motivating them, taking care of their needs and maintaining a friendly and productive work environment. Some of their primary responsibilities include:

  • Attending meetings with other leaders

  • Developing progress reports regarding projects they’re working on

  • Keeping the team focused on the project and moving toward to reach its goal

  • Testing product prototypes

Read more: How To Become a Successful Team Leader

What is a project manager?

A project manager is a professional who is responsible for managing a project and meeting deadlines. The project manager oversees the tactical duties related to a project. These professionals are responsible for keeping the team organized, as opposed to motivating them. Some of their primary responsibilities include:

  • Helping to define the project scope, goals and deliverables

  • Taking care of the budget, documentation, staffing and making sure everyone has a role in the project

  • Delivering updates on the progress and possible obstacles facing a project

  • Managing and resolving issues as they arise and identifying potential risks and creating plans if they occur

  • Reporting and documenting progress to communicate with the team and key stakeholders

  • Providing quality assurance tests on the end product

Read more: Learn About Being a Project Manager

Differences between project managers and project leaders

Some businesses use the terms interchangeably. However, a project leader tends to have more control over a project and more freedom to explore their own management styles than a project manager. There are critical but subtle differences between the positions. The core differences in project leadership and project management are:

Project leaders are visionaries while project managers are coordinators

Project managers are focused on coordinating the project. Project leaders, on the other hand, are responsible for the overall success and vision for that project. Their vision should guide the rest of the employees in what they should do and how they should do it. 

Project managers are project-centric while project leaders are people-centric

Project managers are responsible for the tactics that create the end result—a successful project. Their concern is ensuring that the team meets objectives on time and that the project stays on-budget. Project leaders focus on managing the project while inspiring those who work around them to create their vision.

Project leaders think while project managers execute

Project managers have an outline for what they need to do. Project managers manage the budget, staffing and responsibilities of team members to ensure deadlines are met. While project leaders also manage the team’s effectiveness, their strategy is to motivate and help generate new ideas to achieve goals.

Project managers are results-oriented while project leaders work to learn

The primary goal of the project manager is to finish the project within the allotted time and under the stated budget. Project leaders also want those goals, but they also identify ways to adapt their style of management to their teams. They strive to identify ways to increase team efficiencies and therefore set ambitious team goals.

Related careers

There are a few similar careers that you may also want to explore if you’re interested in a position as a project leader or project manager. They include:

1. Project coordinator

National average salary: $46,986 per year

Primary duties: A project coordinator helps project managers complete projects on time and within the proposed budget. They coordinate project schedules, resources and information and work with the client to define the requirements, scope and objectives for a project. They also work closely with the client to ensure their needs are being met as a project evolves.

2. Cost estimator

National average salary: $73,095 per year

Primary duties: A cost estimator estimates the time, money, labor and materials that will be required to manufacture a product, provide a service or construct a building. Some of their responsibilities include consulting with industry experts to discuss cost estimates and resolve problems, evaluate the cost-effectiveness and profitability of a product and work with the sales team to prepare estimates and bids.

3. Product owner

National average salary: $106,598 per year

Primary duties: A product owner, also known as a scrum product owner, is part of the product development team that defines goals and creates a vision for development projects. Product owners are responsible for communicating with key stakeholders and creating a product roadmap. They are responsible for the generation and management of the list of tasks that must be completed by a development team. These professionals are also accountable for making financial decisions and participating in development events, such as planning and refinement.

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