By Bob Maksimchuk
Sometimes you can learn important lessons from unconventional sources. If you are unaware, the classic 1976 movie western The Outlaw Josey Wales, set near the end of the U.S. Civil War, was directed by and starred Clint Eastwood, who played the main character Josey Wales. The writers may not have intended it; however this movie is replete with leadership and communication lessons that are applicable to executives, project managers, team members, or any of us especially in difficult times on our projects. You currently may not be in a leadership position but some day may need to lead. All of us do need to effectively communicate with those that we work with. You often hear the lament that technical people need to develop “soft skills”. So let’s see what we can learn from Josey Wales and hopefully have some fun along the way.
[Spoiler alert: This series will incrementally reveal the plot of this movie. If you have not seen the movie (Where have you been?), I recommend you get it and enjoy it prior to reading this series.]
The scene: The movie opens with Josey, head down, working hard, plowing the rocky ground of his farm. A rumbling rises that he at first does not notice, then he looks up at a clear sky, looks around but by this time his home is in flames and family is captured by a band of renegades. Josey attempts to stop them but he is unarmed, outnumbered, and eventually knocked unconscious while his family is killed and home destroyed. He wakes to the unwelcome task of burying his family. When done, he mumbles a few Bible verses and collapses in sorrow. Later, sifting through the rubble he finds his pistol and begins target practice.
Lesson 1: Keep Your Vision Up. Pouring yourself into your work is a commendable act. But hard work is not enough. You need to “keep your vision up” so that you are aware of what is happening around you. This is especially important if you came up through the ranks and are now in a leadership position. It is tempting, especially if one part of your project is in some difficulty, to “go hands-on” and dive back in to help. Helping is a fine thing to do, as long as you do not get consumed by it to the point that you are not paying attention to the bigger picture. If you are deep in the trenches, who is leading the team? Josey did not see his problems coming, because he was so focused on his work. Have you ever had a project get into trouble from problems such as a technical issue you did not see coming or a requirements problem that went overlooked or an availability of hardware problem that was deferred until too late, while you were distracted or occupied elsewhere? Were you too busy “fighting fires” to notice an organizational/political issue develop the eventually impacted, delayed, or even cancelled your project?
Leaders must lead. In order to do that, leaders must see the broad landscape in order to understand what direction to go. Looking only in your backyard, prohibits you from seeing potential problems on the road ahead and thus makes you unable to change course in time.
Lesson 2: Hold To Your Principles, But Hold Gently. After his personal disaster, Josey still holds to his faith for strength. When your project goes bad, it’s easy to just throw in the towel, stop caring, and give up. Don’t give up. Hold true to your principles. Have faith in the skills you have accumulated in your career. But don’t just blindly, stubbornly hold that “What we did was right.” That may be true. Still you need to look back and examine what went wrong. Is there anything you could have done differently? Would that have resulted in a different outcome? What do you need to do in the future so that such problems can be avoided? This leads to…
Lesson 3: Choose To Improve. Once you understand the root cause of the problems, improve your and your team’s skills, approach, and/or behaviors to enable you to handle such situations in the future. Josey was unable to defend his family (his pistol was in the house and (implied) it had not been used for some time). So he got his weapon and began to practice.
Once over the trauma of things going wrong on your project, in what direction do you choose to go?
In Part 2, we will examine the choices Josey Wales makes.