Are You Bulletproof?

By Mike Aucoin

With this year's U. S. Presidential election and its extended finish line, there has been a lot of talk around the electronic campfire about which candidate acts more "presidential". What the talking heads are really talking about is who would make the better leader. Project managers that want to become better leaders would do well to study the life of the ultimate cowboy president, Teddy Roosevelt, and the day he became bulletproof.

Roosevelt was known for being a rugged, no-nonsense individual. Various images of him come to mind: the cowboy riding the range, the cavalry officer leading the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, the trust-buster, the hunter/environmentalist, and the President who shook the "Big Stick" in foreign affairs.

It's tempting at times to see strong leaders and believe that leadership comes easily to them. More often than not, a leader's spirit is forged through adversity. TR was sickly and weak as a child, suffering from severe asthma. He overcame his limitations through strenuous exercise and extended time in the great outdoors. His adult life was dramatically influenced by the day, two days after the birth of his daughter, that both his mother and his wife died. His diary entry for that date was marked with a large black X followed by the words "The light has gone out of my life."

Roosevelt recovered from this devastating blow by spending time working as a cowboy in the Dakota Territory. He won the respect of the real cowboys through his hard work, including one stretch of working in the saddle for nearly 40 hours straight while going through five horses.

My favorite story about TR is a speech he gave as a candidate for President in 1912, as told by Roger Bruns in Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's and Twists of Fate in American History (Hyperion, 2000).

Roosevelt was en route to deliver a speech in Milwaukee. A would-be assassin fired a shot that hit TR in the chest directly in line with his heart. Under most circumstances, the injury would have been fatal. Roosevelt, however, had the folded text of his speech in his coat pocket and his speech caught the brunt of the shot. The bullet did lodge in his chest, but stopped short of his heart. Never one to miss a chance to show off, with blood-stained clothes, TR went on to deliver the fifty-minute speech that literally saved his life.

So now we know why politicians always deliver long-winded speeches!

What if someone fired a shot at one of your projects? Are your projects bulletproof?

Many times we attempt to accomplish the near-impossible with our projects. We create project plans that embody denial of reality. They are creatures that cannot stand the slightest hiccup without falling apart: bloated scopes on wicked schedules with a paucity of resources. Everything and everyone has to work together perfectly to make the finish line.

Of course, it never works that way. Problems arise. Eventually, someone fires a bullet that seems destined to be mortal.

How can you make your project bulletproof? Consider four lessons from the world of Teddy Roosevelt.

Wear the vest - Generally, PMs and their teams know their project's weak points, the bullets that are out there waiting to be fired. But often we don't take the time to really consider them, to prepare for them and to develop options to respond to them. Sure, risk management and contingency planning take time. Are they worth it? Picture your team after the bullet has struck the heart of your project and you'll know the answer. A good risk and contingency management plan for your project is your bulletproof vest!

Be robust and confident - Teddy Roosevelt lived the strenuous life and through it he built a robust attitude. Are your projects robust? Will the slightest wind blow them over? The appropriate training, practice and culture for your team can bring about stability and confidence to handle the uncertainties of project life.

Your communication style is a place to start. In the book, Learned Optimism, (Pocket Books, 1998) Martin Seligman reports on studies of winning and losing sports teams. One factor that differentiates the two groups is how they represent themselves. Losing teams describe their wins as rare moments of luck, and speak of losing as the normal state. Winning teams expect to win, and they attribute their losses matter-of-factly to external reasons - not because of any shortcoming of the team. Far from being Pollyannaish, this approach is a calm and confident belief in the skills and wherewithal of the team. Optimism that is learned and practiced leads to success, not the other way around.

Be a doer, and a student - So much of our ability to succeed on projects comes from the skill and resilience that is learned through the effort. One can only plan so much on paper; ultimately we learn what works by trying. Or, as Roosevelt said, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood."

Be "lucky" - Of course, TR was lucky that the bullet hit the speech in his pocket. But many times good fortune is not a matter of luck - it comes from preparedness and attitude. What appears to the world as luck is really the result of extensive homework. Put forth the effort and you'll find that you can dodge a lot of bullets.

Project managers can learn much about leadership from the life of Teddy Roosevelt. With application, effort, and a confident attitude, sometimes we are "lucky" enough to be bulletproof!

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