Know Your Place (Remember D-Day)

d-dayKnowing your place as a leader has little, if anything, to do with where you reside in an organizational chart.

Instead it has everything to do with fully understanding what you can affect in your current situation as a leader; and consequently putting all of your energy and focus on where you can be the most effective.

Recently a seasoned project manager I work with came to me to vent frustrations in his current role.  His leadership position was especially challenging because he was on a rather large and highly visible project that required him to exert influence in all directions – for the people that worked for him, for those at the same level as him, and for those that he worked for.

His role fit the true John Maxwell definition of a “360-Degree Leader”.  Typically when we think of leadership we think of the one person at the top of the organization.  The reality is, as John Maxwell points out, “ninety-nine percent of all leadership occurs not from the top but from the middle of an organization.”

This project manager was frustrated because he felt that those above him weren’t listening or valuing his extensive experience enough. His perspective was that senior leadership was more concerned about politics and sugar-coating reality instead of dealing with the brutal facts of a slipping schedule and a ballooning budget.

He felt stuck in the middle; trying to influence leadership above him from committing to unrealistic timelines and unworkable budgets while at the same time keeping his team motivated and enthusiastic in the wake of such demanding pressure.

I empathized greatly with this manager; it’s always frustrating when you’re on the front lines and it appears you can see the path to victory more clearly than the “top brass” and you’re unable to influence their decisions effectively.  It’s moments like these that have challenged me the most as a leader.

To put things in perspective for this manager I shared with him an analogy; I told him that his position and situation reminded me of a young infantry platoon commander during the June 6th, 1944 invasion of Normandy (D-Day).

I asked him to picture this young leader who, after Pearl Harbor, volunteered to join the Army in early 1942. Shortly after joining he subsequently married his high school sweetheart, found out his new wife was expecting, and began preparations for his deployment to England.

Once in England in early 1943, this young officer found himself in the middle of one of the largest and most strategically important 14-month planning and training cycles the world has ever seen; setting the stage to drive the Germans from France and ultimately destroy the Nazi regime.

I asked this manager to picture this Lieutenant in the “Higgins” boat the morning of the June 6th, 1944 invasion; he hasn’t seen his wife in for almost 1-1/2 years, he’s never seen his new baby, he’s frustrated at the invasion planners for not listening to him about having the proper winter gear, he knows he will never get home until Hitler is defeated, and he’s worried about dying.  He’s become exceedingly overwhelmed by all of the things he has absolutely no influence over; he’s lost sight on what he can truly affect.

Though he has little direct control over if Hitler will be defeated, the command decisions of those above him, or if he will ultimately live or die; he can choose to set the example and provide leadership to those immediately around him. In that overwhelming moment, the most important thing he can affect is the lives of the 25 men around him in that tiny Higgins boat. Encouraging words, a positive attitude, taking care of our people; all are basic leadership requirements we can’t lose sight of.

As leaders we pride ourselves on seeing the big picture and providing big solutions; but you have to be honest and humble about what you can affect in any given situation.  Focusing too much on the large victory, the overwhelming situations, and the frustrating circumstances takes precious time and energy on what we can truly affect.

When faced with this situation, take a step back and remember “D-Day” and take care of those people and situations that you can most positively affect.

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