Project Management Institute

Leading in tough times


In extraordinary circumstances, re-evaluating your style and applying empathy can make or break a team.


Demonstrating sound leadership in any project can be a challenge when the team hits a setback. But consider what it means to be a project manager in post-conflict, post-disaster or humanitarian environments.

Imagine you're a project manager who has been sent to a developing nation that is trying to recover after a natural disaster, like a flood, tornado or massive earthquake. You've been tasked with managing projects to help rebuild houses and roads, as well as support the implementation of sewage and electrical systems.

Some project managers’ first instinct would be to jump in and begin restoring order. But in a post-disaster environment, you're managing local community members. That means people who have been affected by disaster, who may have experienced personal loss and an absence of normalcy, are also working as part of the project team.

Sometimes, project managers don't understand that in these types of situations your team members are also your stakeholders. Realizing this is the first step to sound leadership and empathy, which are critical for the project's successful delivery.

For example, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) went to post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 to rehabilitate Fort National, a slum in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Before the first brick was laid, UNOPS actively looked for ways to engage the affected community and let its needs direct design and implementation.

UNOPS identified community leaders and held continuous meetings with them. The project team ensured the rehabilitation program would bring about transformation, and community leaders worked to limit violence and blockage of these efforts. The project team spent a year meeting with women's groups, student organizations and religious leaders. Focus groups gathered to provide a phased change of view and be involved in the design of the project. Results were nothing short of remarkable.

Project implementation needs to directly serve real people with real needs to make a meaningful impact. To attain that, project managers must exemplify true leadership by seeking to understand. True leadership embodies the ability to strengthen communities, involve all stakeholders, understand context and display genuine empathy. Post-disaster, project managers must re-evaluate their leadership strategy and focus on the team as a whole: What does it mean to you to deliver this project, and what does it mean to your team?

A good leader not only implements a quality project—with scope, time and cost in mind—but also manages effectively and with empathy. It is the project manager's ability to understand and share the feelings of his or her local team that may support the success of the project's delivery. PM


Ricardo Viana Vargas, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP, a past PMI chair, is the director of the Sustainable Project Management Group at the United Nations Office for Project Services in Copenhagen, Denmark.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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