Project Practitioners > Leadership in the midst of a project storm

Leadership in the midst of a project storm

By Cinda Voegtli

Project Lessons from a Hurricane – Part 1

I just got a potent reminder of a number of key project lessons from the most unlikely source. (Is it a sign that we’ve been managing projects too long when everything starts to look like a project and many life lessons can be applied to our projects?) In my case, the source was named Gustav – Hurricane Gustav.

On September 1 2008, my parents became one of the many hit hard by Gustav in south Louisiana, Although Gustav didn’t do the catastrophic damage of Katrina or Ike (and you may not have heard much about it because there wasn’t enough camera-friendly flooding to interest the national media), it hit some communities incredibly hard. It also left many people with very unwanted, time-critical, and stressful projects on their hands – repairing or replacing dwellings, salvaging possessions, fending off mold growth to save what didn’t get blown away or soaked or flooded…and otherwise getting life back to normal after devastating disruptions.

Gustav damaged my parents’ home, and flooded (to the point of requiring internal gutting) their family camp on a nearby lake. I went home for a week to help my parents with clean up, insurance filing, decision-making, and the angst of losing so much and having so much to deal with in the aftermath.


During that week, here are the project lessons I got reminded of:

- The importance of leadership in times of crisis and what it really LOOKS like

- Finding fast ways for new PMs to “learn how”

- Reducing the angst in the fuzzy front end of a difficult project

- Making tough project decisions in difficult times

- How great customer service and earning trust are key to managing projects

- Running afoul of a major project sponsor


The remainder of this article is about exhibiting leadership in a crisis. In subsequent postings I’ll take on each of the other items I found myself thinking about as my “family project team” dealt with the Gustav aftermath.

What leadership in a crisis looks like

I like word pictures especially for more ephemeral concepts like leadership. We can talk about it all we want, but I understand it best when I see it in action – which also gives me something to model my behaviors around and model for others as well.

After Hurricane Katrina hit a few years ago, the then-governor Kathleen Blanco was roundly criticized for her “lack of leadership” during the crisis, which undermined confidence in her ability to handle the crisis by seeming to wallow on big decisions, and also by her very persona - how she came across in news conferences. On camera she came across to me as noticeably rattled and unsure of herself, even a bit plaintive and whiny. Well, yes, it WAS a tough situation. She’s only human. But – it was her job to lead the way back – and people needed to see someone capable and credible in charge.

Louisiana’s current governor is a 37-year-old named Bobby Jindal. He got a huge amount of press exposure 7 months into his first term in the lead up to and aftermath of Gustav. After the storm, while I was preparing for my trip to Louisiana, I monitored the local news website for my parents since they were without electricity. In the course of this I saw several Jindal press conferences, followed by several articles about how he was handling the mess.

I’ve excerpted a few passages from two of those articles because I think they portray an interesting view of a leadership persona in action. As you read the quotes about Jindal’s presence and behaviors, think about stressful, crisis-type projects in your organization. Would his style of leadership persona be beneficial? Why? I’ll close out this post with a summary of my own take-aways.


In the following indented passages I’ve bolded words of interest and surrounded the excerpts with my thoughts on how it resonate for leading projects.

First, some commentary on a number of excerpts from article in The Times Picayune, 7 Sep 2008.

This series starts before the storm hit:

Jindal knew the storm's initial high winds would ground aircraft by 9 p.m., so he had less than 20 hours to mobilize a key part of one of the largest medical evacuations in the nation's history, without sufficient resources in hand. Otherwise, the patients, along with the nurses and doctors attending them, could risk remaining in Gustav's path.  "You could see it in his eye," said Alan Levine, the state's health secretary. "He didn't want any bureaucracy to get in the way."

Here Jindal was with a huge (and all too typical) project situation: huge scope, not enough time, and not enough resources. But he had a clear idea of what was at stake. He knew what mattered most, and it wasn’t “the rules”, it was lives. He communicated the message that they were going to find a way.


And furthermore, he was tackling a totally new challenge, with a new team, under the worst of scrutiny!


At the center of [a] reinvented [post-Katrina] decision-making system, according to interviews with those in the middle of the process, was Jindal, 37, who was leading a brand new team of aides and Cabinet members with a little more than seven months of experience in office. Adding to the pressure, Gustav drew the media's spotlight during the Republican National Convention, putting Jindal and his GOP administration's performance on a national stage, even though he had never in his career faced any crisis so serious.


And we think OUR management status meetings are tough! 


So those were his challenges – now what about the results?


…..high grades were awarded Jindal by a breadth of participants in the state's Unified Command Group, a panel of 16 that coordinates crisis management for the state, and others who worked in the state Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge in the days before and after the hurricane.


Hey, they liked and respected him across functional and geographic organizational boundaries! Why?


The key, they said, was Jindal's style of demanding solutions and information, setting it down in numbers that could measure progress and shunning any discussions of the bureaucratic process. Add to that Jindal's grasp of details and organization, and his ability to converse on any subject large or small.


"I can't imagine anyone being more organized and being more involved in every issue," said Robert Barham, secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which led the state's rescue efforts.


...[Jindal] sets a tone by insisting on solutions that can be quantified, and then checking to see the result. People soon learn that they cannot go to Jindal with a long discussion about all the obstacles to getting things done.


Hmmm. They evidently gave him high marks because he demanded results. We all want results – but do we think people want us as project managers to demand them? Here are people across a wide array of functions and organizations being held publicly accountable. Those quoted in this article seem to be acknowledging that it made a difference.  And note that while it’s not a project manager’s job to personally deal with every detail, we are responsible for being on top of all the issues – and here’s a leadership situation where that evidently mattered a lot to those watching. And they were watching him.

He set an overall tone of expectation, a tone that insisted on people stepping up, overcoming obstacles, taking personal responsibility for results. I bet he didn’t lecture or plead, he just “expected,” and evidently did so consistently.


So how did he actually work with all these people day to day?

In the days before and after the storm, the Unified Command Group met twice a day at the state Emergency Operations Center, a key-personnel facility with back-up generators, communications equipment and nearby pads to land a fleet of National Guard and State Police helicopters.


Jindal would sit at the head [of the Command Center conference table] … and conduct concise meetings of about 90 minutes. He would go around the table methodically gathering reports, assigning groups to solve problems and giving directions in a cool, calm manner, focused on the issues and not the personalities, according to those who attended.


During the command meetings, Jindal would take notes, referring to them later to hold people accountable for what they promised.


Wow – two 90 minute meetings a day that people thought were effective. :-) None of us would want to do this all the time – but he came up with an effective way for a wide range of people to collaborate in an urgent, high-pressure situation. And evidently not just talking, not just "relaying status" - but having people know that they were being held accountable.  And then he took it to the streets:


After most meetings, he would emerge with a report to the media. He soon discarded scripted presentations and instead would summarize the highlights of his notes, in front of live TV cameras. Talking at head-spinning speed, he poured out information on every topic in specific detail and stood for questions, often giving as much as 45 minutes for a news briefing. Then he would take off on a helicopter to visit some part of the state, and return to conduct the next command meeting.


Wow, you’re really on top of things if you can talk off the cuff on live TV in this situation, so much going on, so much pressure. But it’s also interesting that it was seen as good to have the leader pouring out a bunch of detail. He wasn’t personally handling all those details, and of course he also couldn’t visit every damaged location in the state. But he was visibly out there and on top of things. So for us - is it especially important for the leader of a tough project, or project crisis, to be consistently visible and demonstrate they’re on top of everything? I watched a few of these news conferences on my parent’s behalf and found myself thinking, “Yeah, this guy knows exactly what’s going on, who’s getting it done or not, what the worst remaining issues are, and he is taking action every minute of the day. (I bet they DO have a chance of getting their power back on this week!)”

And finally, a few last excerpts, this time from The (Louisiana) Daily World, 7 September 2008


Jindal was highly visible from the time of the hurricane's approach through its assault on the state. He continues to provide impressive leadership in the aftermath. On national television, he came across as firmly in control and highly competent in his implementation of disaster policy.

That will help in securing the federal aid that we will need. It's easier to persuade people to help when it appears that the help will be competently used.

We believe that his firm stance with utilities companies let them and others know that he'd set priorities and that he expected quick action to get power back to the people and businesses necessary to get the state up and running again.

We hope that he will continue that no-nonsense tone and remain firm in his leadership in the weeks that come when bureaucrats and insurance companies will want to take the tangled way toward long-term rebuilding.

Hmmm – that visibility theme again. Who do we need to stay visible with on our really tough projects, and why? In this crisis, it seemed to be about building confidence and trust across a broad array of involved people, from the federal government to beleaguered citizens to other local and state politicians with their own turf and concerns. Confidence that someone was firmly in charge, was making sure the mess got dealt with. Trust that priorities were being set, people’s interests were being looked out for, and the money would spent wisely. “We are confident this person can do the job. We can trust this person with the crisis and all its impacts on us.”


Lots to think about. Here’s my quick summary of personal take-aways - the behaviors and attitudes I want to take away from this demonstration of Bobby Jindal’s leadership through a hurricane, to apply to difficult, even crisis-mode projects of my own.

- He was highly visible as the person leading the charge to deal with the crisis.

- He sent a firm “no excuses, get it done” message – not allowing any time to dwell on bureaucratic or other obstacles.

- He stood publicly for results. He held the other team members publicly accountable for their piece of the effort.

- He was seen as competent - on top of the issues and details, able to make decisions, able to prioritize. He took the time to be on top of them and he took the time to communicate that he was on top of them.

- He used a cool and calm manner – but a no-nonsense tone as well – to simultaneously inspire calm and confidence, but also emphasize that he was serious about commitments and results.

- He inspired the kind of trust that breaks down suspicion and silos and got a disparate team working together toward a goal.

Overall, to me he coupled a very effective leadership persona with the skills of an executive-level, focused-on-what’s-at-stake manager. I believe we should keep all these aspect in mind as we deal with our own difficult projects. We need to manage AND lead – earning confidence and trust from our team members and stakeholders as we competently show the way from goals, through challenges, to results.

Cinda Voegtli

Related Links
Leadership and the Project Lifecycle illustrates the evolution of leadership responsibilities during the different phases of a project. When you have to report progress on an issue—good or bad—it helps to have a concise reporting format that even reporters won't tire of. When you're in crisis mode and need to keep everyone up to date, daily hot-list meetings can keep everyone on track.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thanks for giving the community a very actionable set of items that we can put in play. I agree that it's what you do, as well as how you present yourself and are percived that makes a strong leader.

Cinda, thank you for compiling and sharing your thoughts and observations. You've concisely and successfully summarized a shining example of effective, engaged, and committed sponsorship in action.

Good Article, well done.

excellent example of lead by example

Looks like Bobby Jindal did a great job in Louisiana during Gustav!

Interesting article. I like the personals take-aways and it really motivates me to apply it to improve my skill as a project manager. Thank you

Excellent article. This will be one that I distribute to my team to show the example of leadership on a crisis project!

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