The Politics of Inspiration and Shame

election2008As a project leader, part of your job is to inspire people to persevere in pursuit of seemingly impossible goals.  In my work, it’s not part of my job . . . that’s pretty much all I do.  A decade leading projects was the perfect preparation for this work.  Lately I’ve been spending about half of my time traveling from the Silicon Valley to Japan, leading a team of consultants in delivering programs that we loosely refer to as “Global Leadership and Management Development” workshops, that are designed to equip participants with the ability to achieve what seems impossible, but is merely difficult.  Part of this program is for participants to tackle a project that they believe is highly unlikely, or nearly impossible, but if it WERE possible would transform their company for the better.  We tell them to choose projects that are too dangerous to tackle in their normal jobs, ones that could spell career suicide for them if they attempted them and failed, and would bring shame on their families for generations to come in that unfortunate circumstance.  (Yes, I really say that to our valued Japanese clients.  I’m kind of joking, but anyone who has championed a risky breakthrough project knows that it’s not entirely in jest.  And regardless of any positive contribution he made, every major political disaster since Ex-US President Nixon’s 1970’s demise has had a name ending in “-gate” applied to it.) And then they work on these “impossible” projects.

Regardless of what you think about the current government in America, it might interest you to know how globally-minded business people in Japan responded to Obama’s election.  You see, in our workshops, each project team engaged in “tackling the impossible” gets a chance to pick their team name.  Usually they’re in the grip of a strange mixture of excitement and paralyzing fear when they do this, because they are just startingt to realize that they will actually have to choose and work on a project that they believe is almost certainly doomed to failure from the start.  As a result they tend to choose names that capture the essence of this intoxicating emotional mix . . . names like “Mission Possible”, “Trail Blazing Dragons” (a tongue twister even for a native English speaker), or “Team Breakthrough”.  But something amazing started happening last October just before the US presidential elections.  Almost every group that we worked with had at least one team that chose a name something like “Obama”, “Team Obama”, or “Yes We Can!”  One team even insisted that the other dozen people in the workshop repeatedly throw up their hands and chant “Yes we can!” whenever they made a presentation, in particular when they asked “Do you think we can achieve our project goals?”

Wow.  I realized that there were many people who felt strongly about Obama in the US, one way or the other, but I was totally amazed to see how far-reaching Obama’s inspirational message was.  Now, I’ve been doing this work with the employees of Japanese companies, including people from the US, Europe, South America, and all over Asia, not just Japan, for over 3 years.  With dozens of teams choosing names in all that time I’ve never before encountered one including a US president, so this was quite a surprise to me.  I can tell you that these people didn’t choose this name because they had a thorough understanding of, and respect for, Obama’s policies or accomplishments.  They chose him as their inspiration because . . . well, he’s inspiring!  And let me tell you, when people are facing seemingly insurmountable odds, they seek inspiration.

Are you providing inspiration to your team?  Would any team up to their hips in challenges choose your name, or some wit or wisdom you’ve dispensed, as part of their team name to inspire them?  What could you do that would be authentic, meaningful, and worthy of that kind of immortalization?  That’s the elephant in the room for me these days.  Heck, sometimes I am too tired to even inspire myself, let alone anyone else.  Sometimes I just go to bed thinking “Gosh, if only I can get 10 hours of sleep I can do what I’ve committed to tomorrow.”  If you’re a project leader with more irons in the fire than you can handle, and just barely squeaking through your day, what’s left to nourish your team’s need to be inspired?

OK, I know, it’s “touchy feely” stuff.  And, as Zig Ziglar taught me, “Inspiration doesn’t last.  That’s why we need to do it daily.” . . . but I’d sure like to know what inspires you, and what you do to inspire others.  Me, I’m hanging by a thread here waiting for your answer!  Make it a good one.

– Kimberly Wiefling, Founder, Wiefling Consulting, LLC and author, Scrappy Project Management (Japanese translation due out July 1, 2009)

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4 thoughts on “The Politics of Inspiration and Shame”

  1. Another factor is consistency. Obama is very consistent. Whenever I see him speak, he is well dressed, he is well prepared on the content, and he appears well rested. He speaks in a consistently determined manner, a manner that he appears to have practiced and mastered over the years. I believe that Obama has spent a great deal of time cultivating his image, and that is evidenced by the consistency. I think that the people who follow him have an emotional reaction to that consistency, a reaction that instills confidence in him. Whether or not you would call that reaction “inspiration” is up for debate, but I think it gives people the confidence to continue following his lead.

  2. Anu Subramanian

    I agree with Loyal and Kimberly. Every project manager should lead by example. Not necessarily by doing something grandly inspiring, but by doing little things that add up to eventually make a huge difference. For instance, what do you do when you’re facing an impossible schedule and a multitude of issues ? The project manager painstakingly works thru every issue with the team, manuevering resources and negotiating where needed, while never surrendering to the “lost-cause” syndrome. With every obstacle that is knocked off, the team starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This, my friends, is contagious. Very soon, the team becomes inspired to bulldoze thru every issue in the same way. Thx Kimberly for this post.

  3. Yes, indeed, I’m glad the rest of the world (ROW) likes our president. I travel globally every month and was repeatedly forced to say “Hey, don’t ask me! I don’t know why we’re doing that!” OK, I’m very grateful to have been fortunate enough to have been born in the USA an American citizen, but I was really not feeling the love of the rest of the world for us these past few years!

  4. I really resonate with your comments about the importance of being an inspiring project manager, or any type of manager/leader for that matter. The very best managers I have had the pleasure to work for were always up-beat about our project(s), encouraged us to achieve, and constantly helped us to see and feel how things would be when we were done. They were a real pleasure to work with and they encouraged all of us to work harder for them. This is how you tap the underutilized productivity in every organization.

    BTW: Isn’t it great to feel like we are (or at least our president is) liked once again! Perhaps Obama’s inspiration will get our economy (and, perhaps even the world’s) back on its rails and moving again. We sure have a bunch of tough problems to solve.

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