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.
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
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
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.
In extraordinary circumstances,
re-evaluating your style and applying
empathy can make or break a team.
BY RICARDO VIANA VARGAS, PMI-RMP, PMI-SP, PMP