There are concepts and connections I kick around in my mind for years before I get to the core of the issue. One reoccurring point of interest has been the relationship between leadership and courage. Somehow the concepts have always been connected for me but I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m wrong and overly romanticizing the concept of what Leadership actually means.
This morning I woke up thinking about how important safety is as a concept in a project environment and the proverbial light-blub went on over my head. In the Agile world, safety is an important element in team building. Effectively if your team is spending too much time watching their collective backs or playing politics (or even ranting about politics) then they aren’t getting anything done. As leaders it’s our job to make our teams feel safe to get their work done. The only way to accomplish this that I know of is to be willing to give up most of our own safety issues and that — the last time I checked–takes courage.
Obviously it’s not my intention to demand anyone take a risk they aren’t comfortable with but some jobs are more ‘risky” than others. Back when I started my career we had the simple statement “if you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen”. We all knew what it meant and we all accepted that we were playing bet your career when we took on a difficult project. Back then part of the basis on which I took a project was a calculation of the odds of succeeding. I used to joke that 51% was a sure bet and I’ve even taken a program where management put the odds of success at 20% and still been successful. Obviously the quality of the team and the support factors available to the project had to go up as the odds of success went down, but the truth was most things aren’t quite as difficult as people feared once there was true commit to achieving the goal. There are exceptions of course. Some projects I’ve been offered have been suicide missions–carelessly crafted and designed to fail for political purposes. I will never forget a gentleman offering me a job leading an ERP implementation all the while chortling that they’d pick my bones for supper. (Yes, it really did feel like a bad fairy tale – needless to say I ran as fast in the other direction as humanly possible)
Reflecting back on what I’ve seen in my own experience and my discussion with clients I think there’s a simple rule of thumb. Anyone who needs to be completely safe can’t lead and shouldn’t be asked to. Additionally high process, excessive rules and responsibility delegated upward under the guise of governance all contribute to environments were the possibility of leadership has been sacrificed on the altar of risk avoidance.
Projects are risky, uncertain undertakings with no guarantees of success. As leaders we need to be very clear about that to everyone involved and make the appropriate decisions about who we put in charge. My suggestion is we shift our perspective and focus a away from things like certification and a whole lot more on things like leadership born through an innate sense of courage. Bottom line: I can train someone on how to create a Gantt chart or how to put together a scope document. I can’t put steel in spine where it isn’t already.