Thursday, April 30, 2020

Stressed leadership

Well, here in the Spring of 2020, leaders are stressed; and circumstances are somewhat chaotic (meaning not only disorganized and counterproductive, but small effects are highly leveraged by exponential responses)

And so one wonders: are our best leaders in crises and chaos likely to have been trained in the military where the 'fog of war' is all too real?

Yes, but no.

Our military schools and for the last 20 years our anti-terror wars have provided ample opportunity to train and experience a large cadre of crises-tested leaders. On the other hand, many such trained people have been summarily relieved for not making the grade.

Indeed, this is no different from wars past: Lincoln famously went through four major commanders before he found his general in Grant. The others were relieved with prejudice. Forward to WW II: ditto: hundreds of combat generals and colonels were relieved for lack of leadership skills in one form or another

On the other hand:
Lincoln was certainly a leader in crises and chaos and never was a military person
Same for Franklin Roosevelt

And the same for many of the squad leaders and battalion chiefs of FDNY that led their men into the Twin Towers; many were not military alumni

And now we have the triage crises in the medical centers making life and death decisions all day long; many not military

And, then there's biology:
Under stress, you're not the same person:
  •  Heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline all change
  • The brain, already a 40% consumer of the body's energy, steps up its energy demand, thereby starving physical functionality and leading to premature exhaustion and other effects (*)
And if you've never really tried to lead under such biological stress, there could be panic attacks. Thus, there is a case for experiencing these effects before you face them in a real leadership demand

What does this have to do with your PMO?
All the following exist in most PMOs in one form or another

  • Many elements of leadership can be taught, and thus learned, as part of the project experience
  • Some other experience of true high-stress is needed, if only for fending off panic attacks
  • Many elements of culture inform leadership: trust, integrity, optimism, to name a few
  • Many leaders emerge when the crises builds (so called opportunity model)
  • Many leaders instinctively manage risk effectively ... a skill that is not easily taught
  • Many leaders manage human relations instinctively ... the right word, and the right emotion to the right target is another hard-to-teach skill
If then you layer on pressure, crises, and chaos to that context, you may get the leader you need.

(*) I always tell my ski classes: if your hands are cold, get a warmer hat!

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