Friday, September 18, 2015

To Succeed in Today’s Dynamic Environment, You Must Be Willing to Take Risks

 (Gen. George McClellan - image in public domain)

            In their book, Fusion Leadership, Daft and Lengel argue:
“Leadership in a destabilized world means nonconformity. It means breaking tradition, boundaries, and norms. One obvious trait that distinguishes a leader from a manager is a willingness to take risks… Leaders do not play it safe… It takes courage to jump into a new way of doing things… Failure is the first step towards success… Without failure we don’t learn… Leadership is a struggle, both within yourself and within the organization.”[1]

Comparing two leaders from the U.S. Civil War helps us better understand leadership and risk taking as it relates to projects. Major General George McClellan, of the Union Army, was the epitome of a fine military leader. When he took over the Army of the Potomac, it had been demoralized by disastrous defeats. McClellan reorganized the Army and got rid of its inept leaders. He intensively trained and drilled the troops. He improved the living conditions and assured that troops were well fed and supplied. He made himself visible and took prompt action to resolve soldiers' complaints. His pronouncements were eloquent and stirring. He carried himself well and exuded confidence. The troops cheered him everywhere he went. He had Lincoln's total confidence. He was perfect except for one thing: he couldn't win a battle.

Whenever he faced Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan invariably imagined that the worst possible outcome was also the most likely outcome. He was obsessed with "what-ifs.”

  • What if Lee has me outnumbered?
  • What if Lee has outflanked me?
  • What if Lee is behind me and about to attack Washington?
  • What if my troops panic and run?
  • What if Lincoln orders me to do something stupid?
  • What if the newspapers turn against me?

What-ifs paralyzed McClellan. They stripped away any initiative he might have had. Even when he serendipitously obtained a genuine copy of Lee's battle plan before the Battle of Antietam, he was so slow to react and so reluctant to commit his reserves that he lost the enormous advantage he had. His fear of making a mistake and risk aversion cost many lives and ultimately revealed McClellan for what he was: a loser.

Thus, in the National Military Command Center anteroom, the quotation on the wall is by Lee: "I was too weak to defend. So, I attacked."

Terry Little, commonly regarded as one of the best project managers in the U.S. Air Force, presented the above story with the following conclusions:

“Project management is literally teeming with 'McClellans' today--those who seemingly do all the right things, but can never quite escape having every action shaped by negative what-ifs. Like McClellan they view the future with trepidation. To these, any decision is an opportunity for something bad or embarrassing to happen. Not failing is a desirable outcome. Anything bold or new is an anathema. Uncertainty paralyzes them. Any risk is too much risk.

I can't change anyone but myself. I will never be a leader like Lee. But, reflecting on Lee's quote caused me to resolve that I will never be a McClellan either. I will always try to know, and act in a way that shows I know, the difference between winning and not losing.” [2]

We would like to add that business is always a battle — for customers, improvements, and efficiency. To win, a leader must lead much like a general. In today’s world of “doing more with less,” delivering a project is also a battle. In today’s business arena, you can’t succeed by taking safe risks. If you believe in “better safe than sorry” you don’t belong there. If you play the game so as not to lose you will never win.

[1] Daft, R. & Lengel, R. (1998). Fusion Leadership: Unlocking the Subtle Forces that Change People and Organizations (pp. 156-164). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
[2] Little, T. (2000). The Difference between Winning and Not Losing, pp. 8-9, In Laufer, A. and E. J. Hoffman. Project management success stories: lessons of project leaders (pp. 8-9). New York, NY: Wiley.