One of my favourite passages in Lord of the Rings is towards the beginning of the second book in the trilogy: The Two Towers. Aragorn, as leader of the Fellowship, is now seeing the mission fall apart before his eyes. He is having a bad day. Boromir is slain, valiantly but vainly protecting the hobbits Merry and Pippin, who are now captured by the marauding band of Orcs.
It gets worse. He discovers that Frodo, the Ring-Bearer, is also missing, along with Sam and one of the boats.
What should he do? They have just spent a precious half hour giving Boromir a river burial, as befits this great warrior of Gondor, and time is ticking away. It is urgent! Should he, Gimli and Legolas pursue Frodo and Sam to protect the Ring-Bearer (the ‘Main Thing’ of the mission, perhaps?) or seek to rescue Merry and Pippin from the Orcs?
What he does next is an object lesson to leaders in what I would call the Strategic Moment. To be sure, the situation requires urgent action, but it must be strategic action. If Aragorn makes the wrong call then the consequences could be dire.
‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!’ He stood silent for a moment. ‘I will follow the Orcs … My heart speaks clearly at last: [emphasis mine] the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part…’
For me this illustrates a number of qualities of a good leader in a crisis:
- He pauses.
Despite the pressing urgency of the moment, the good leader actually does
something counter-intuitive: he slows down. The cavalry may almost upon the
archers but they hold it for the right moment. What is crucial is that the
aim is sure.
- He faces reality. This is not the time for indulging in denial or retreating
into self-pity. Aragorn doesn’t bleat, “This isn’t happening!” (that
all-too popular idiom these days) or start to take out his frustration on
those comrades who happened to be around.
No, he calmly faces the situation as it really presents itself. As Max de Pree once said, “A leader defines reality.”
This not the time for grieving or, worse still, to indulge in the blame-game. As William Durant, founder of General Motors, once said, “Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you’re going to do now and do it.”
- He gives the situation his total attention. A strategic moment is a mission-critical moment. In pausing,
this is not the time for being distracted. Mental focus is one of the key
disciplines of a good leader.
- He searches his head and his heart. As Spencer Johnson has written elsewhere, we make better
decisions when our head and our heart agree. We make better decisions that
are congruent with our value systems and passion as well as making
rational, logical sense.
- He releases himself from what he cannot do,
and focuses on what he can.
Strategic decisions are as much about saying ‘No’ to options as saying
‘Yes’ to others. Leaders are always alert to the waxing and waning of what
Stephen Covey calls their ‘Circle of Influence’. At times we can influence
and control more than at other times; that’s just accepting reality.
A real source of unhelpful stress is to get frustrated and angry. We tell ourselves that we don’t have as much executive latitude today as yesterday that some on our project aren’t as cooperative or as available today as yesterday, that key stakeholders don’t seem to be as responsive to us as they have been in the past, and it’s not fair! We can’t afford the luxury of a “pity-party” now. We need to assess with the situation as it really is now.
- He is prepared to redefine the Mission. The ‘Main Thing’ was to escort the Ring-Bearer to Mordor, but
Aragorn reflects deeply enough to make even this mission statement negotiable.
He identifies the real ‘critical success factor’ of his mission – to
protect as many of his party as he can. What is not negotiable is his
value of protecting those whom he can protect. Reflection helps him
distinguish values and practice.
In project terms, this is called ‘reviewing the business case’. In truth, the great project leader will never lose connection with the fundamental ‘why’ of the project. We need to stay connected with the business case, to refine it, re-state it and re-communicate it continually to our team. Out of this we can give authentic direction.
- He takes positive action. Follow through a decision with an immediate step towards it. As a leader you need to model the response for your team. This is not the time for ‘paralysis by analysis’. Unless we identify and act upon a positive practical response to the Strategic moment, then no matter if we have done all the above, we have failed. Consider the question, ‘What practical steps can I, as leader, take now, to model and reinforce this new strategic direction?’
I am always fascinated how leaders respond in the crucible of a crisis. These are not just Strategic Moments for the mission, but also defining moments in the character development of the leader, herself.
It seems to me that the first Strategic Moment in a project for the typical leader comes almost immediately. A client requirement is given her which is a dangerous cocktail of ambiguity and prescriptiveness. She probably hasn’t been included in the ‘pre-sales’ feasibility discussions, and this half-baked solution is almost dumped on her as a fait accomplis. What does she do when the Account Manager is demanding an immediate start: ‘Just do it!’ It takes guts, not methodology, to press the pause button in these situations.
However, if she does it enough and make the right call enough times, each time it gets easier. And she grows as a leader.
Peter Jackson’s excellent movie of Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring finishes just before this incident in the book. The second movie in the series – The Two Towers- skips this fascinating moment: Jackson has Aragorn hurling himself into pursuit almost immediately. The movie looks at the story, no doubt, through a postmodern lens, a view that can only appreciate the chaotic, the fast-paced and more obviously magical. But here in the book is, I believe, a classic literary portrayal of timeless leadership wisdom.
So next time you have a crisis, and everyone is clamouring for an urgent remedy, press the pause button ...
…. and have the courage to wait ...
… until your heart speaks clearly.
[First published in Project Manager Today, 2002.]