TED@PMI: The Rise of Resilient Leadership
There’s a new sort of leader on the rise, one who eschews the traditional command and control vibe in favor of a style that emphasizes next-level creativity, resilience and flexibility—along with a willingness to reach out for help.
There will be more demands on projects to be delivered quicker. There will be more demands on projects to be delivered at lower cost. There will be more demands for projects to meet specific customer needs that are ever changing as well.
So it takes a lot for a leader, project manager to cope and catch up with all those challenges. And you need help. So you actually need to ask for that help. People need to trust you. You need to be authentic with the way you come across to people so that people can actually step forward and provide that help for you.
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This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.
When I think of a leader, the first image that pops into my head is of the unflinching, steel-jawed field general who won’t take no for an answer and who plows forward despite all manner of adversity. But it’s time to rethink that idea, because a new type of leader is emerging—one who is humble and who is more focused on teambuilding than in leading by force of personality.
And these new leaders, those wielding creativity and empathy, are onto something, especially in our current situation. To borrow an idea from leadership scholar and author Robert J. Thomas, resiliency often relies on creativity. It’s that ability to make the mental leap toward seeing opportunities within adversity rather than just seeing limitations—and those traits were front and center at the recent TED@PMI event.
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Today we’re going to hear from two speakers from TED@PMI. Highlighting the power of resilience, we begin with Billy Samuel Mwape, a project leader and the assistant information and communications technology manager at the Development Bank of Zambia in Lusaka.
Why do you think resilience is such a key skill for a project leader?
BILLY SAMUEL MWAPE
I’m always a believer that for every leader, project leader or just any leader of an organization, the first role for every leader is to define reality. And once you define reality, then now you can come up with strategies on how you want to move your team forward or to execute the project. And when we talk about resiliencies, reality is not always in our favor. I can give an example for what has happened right now. We have COVID-19. This is our reality. And if you’re a project manager or if you’re a leader leading a team of people under COVID-19, this is something that is strange to us. It is a storm before us. And therefore, it calls for a leader that is decisive, highly adaptive and who’s ready to learn.
It is very critical for every leader to be resilient. But then what is resilience? We need to break this down. So, for me, to be resilient, a leader really needs to know the roadmap. You need to stick to a roadmap as a leader. If you are executing a project, what is it that you are trying to execute at the end of the day? And are you able to communicate with your team? Do you have a full focus on the mission of what you’re trying to do? During turbulent times such as this one, there’s need for a leader to really focus on the positives.
And secondly, there’s really need for a leader to be transparent. Be authentic by sharing what you know and what you don’t know. There’s usually this feeling of wanting to be correct all the time as a leader, but it’s a false feeling. You are doomed for failure if you always think like that because you have to be authentic. You need to know that there’s some things that you will not know, especially in uncertainties like this. So you really need to be transparent with your team.
Your TED Talk centered on a project that required all manner of resiliency but that had nothing to do with your work at the bank—instead, it was the project you and your wife undertook in response to your infant son’s diagnosis of cerebral palsy. How do you think that asking your team of therapists to work through agile sprints affected the outcomes versus if they had just coordinated in standard healthcare fashion
BILLY SAMUEL MWAPE
We were able to have focus with a roadmap, which was very clear, and a shared vision. We managed to achieve results faster than ordinarily we would have achieved them. Look at it in this way. I always kept on thinking if we allowed them to do their great work—they are awesome in their own specialization—but then what was going to happen was that they were going to start working in silos. And it was possible that we’re going to have antagonistic efforts where people did not know what we were working on.
I’ll give you a very good example. A physiotherapist asked us to be folding our son’s legs because the muscles in his outer legs were actually pulling outwards. We were warned not to allow him to sit in W shape. So once we were told that, we needed to communicate that information to other therapies, such that whenever he goes to the speech therapist—because when you go to a speech therapist, it’s not just about speech. The speech therapist connects with the child through games and other activities. So those activities they needed to speak to what the physiotherapist was doing. So it was at that moment when I really emphasized on this team coming together.
So we had to go through the group dynamics, and we met at some point. It was awesome that we were able to have three therapists in one room and really understanding what we were working on. So we were able to focus on certain sprints because of this type of approach of having a roadmap and then having clear deliverables we needed to meet in the short term.
The iterative nature of sprints also affords you the chance to get creative along the way. What’s your advice on how to cultivate that ability to make smart midstream adjustments?
BILLY SAMUEL MWAPE
Possibilities are all around us, and everywhere we look there are opportunities, even in unexpected places like difficult times like the one we are going through under COVID-19 or the one we went through, or we keep going through, with my son because it’s still a project that is running. I really want to emphasize the fact that every project leader should realize that failure is a natural part of progress. And we really need to be honest and authentic about ourselves and our team. We need to know that we can fail early and learn from there and pick up so quickly.
And then for us to cultivate the attitude of creativity, every leader should actually trust the people on their team. Know that leadership is not about titles, but leadership is about disposition more than the positions that we carry as project managers, project directors, PMO directors. We need to realize that in the synergies is where lies the magic of achieving big successes.
And then, creativity usually comes in uncertainty. When things are okay, we are in our comfort zones. We’re dealing with things that we are familiar with. Therefore, we just continue with conformance because this is something that we already know. But then the moment we are hit with uncertainty, then we know that there’s a need, a high need for us to tap into the creative mind. So as a leader, always create a conducive environment for your team to fail, but then what is important is how you pick up from that failure very quickly.
Then most importantly, go for little steps. Big visions are good, but then if you put them before you in turbulent times, they have an ability to actually crush you and you will fail to see beyond that. But when you concentrate on the little daily activities, they give you that satisfaction, the daily satisfaction that you are able to meet the little goals and that hype up the momentum for you to actually achieve the culminated successes that are actually beyond the imagination. Something that you would have never even imagined or planned for at the beginning of the storm.
Are you a different leader as a result of coming through this?
BILLY SAMUEL MWAPE
Totally. My son is my role model for resilience leadership. Every time I look at him, I see scars on his body because as a leader, as a father, I needed to make hard decisions at some point because I was at a point of babying him and protecting him from the pain, from the harshness of this world and allowing him to actually just not develop at all. But then, as a leader, I realized that I needed to expose him to the world. He needed to attempt to run. He needed to fail on his own, have some scars on his body and then pick up lessons from there on his own. So this has totally changed the way I perceive people.
You don’t need to micromanage people. People have the capability to learn on their own, pick up on their own, and that stays as a permanent neuropath in their head. That skill stays in them. When you micromanage people, what you do is you turn them into robots, and the time you will not be around, your team will never perform because they’re so used to you showing them what to do, move from point A to point B. And guess what? With artificial intelligence, routine programming is no longer sensible for all of us. You need to allow people to grow on their own. So I’ve become a type of leader that actually advocates for a self-managing team, a team that actually cultivates creativity and a team that cultivates openness in the way that we communicate.
At the end of the day, you are only there to shape the direction. You are only there to show the vision or to share the vision. Your team will actually help you achieve those results. So this is what I’ve learned coming out of this experience that I’ve had with my son. Every day I wake up, I just look at him and then I’m so proud within me that there goes my champ. He fails one time, he fails a second time, the third time he learns how to balance on his own. All I have to do is to make sure that he doesn’t harm himself, but a certain level of exposure is very important. And so this applies to leadership as well if you ask me.
Flexible, creative leadership is part of building resiliency into a project team, but it won’t mean much without the ability to get the whole team on board and to get all the stakeholders to buy in. To do that, one of the most powerful tools at a leader’s disposal is storytelling. That was the focus of Chiwuike Amaechi’s TED@PMI address. I spoke with Chiwuike about how he thinks about crafting those narratives in his work as a principal subsea intervention engineer at Shell Nigeria Exploration & Production in Lagos, Nigeria.
How have you learned to think about the power of narrative in terms of its ability to get team members on the same page, rowing in the same direction?
One thing that I’ve always loved about good authors is they know how to suck you in. Some of the stories they tell, you can actually really relate to it, and you can see your neighbors or yourself in some of those characters that they create.
So when I looked at the relationships and the way of working in the offshore field that I had experienced growing up in that environment, relating it to storytelling, I then could draw the connection to what has happened in the industry on the safety side as well. So now the narrative is not about statistics. It’s more about keeping you safe, keeping your family safe. So we take the safety incidents or the mishaps and the events of the past in every communication, in every interaction. We say, “Okay, this happened here,” and people see what has happened. People can reflect on it, and then say, “Okay, so the environment may be different, but something similar can happen here as well if we don’t do certain things for it.”
And that’s what a good story should be able to do. Somebody should be able to listen to a good story and be able to really take it and relate to it. The most powerful thing about stories is the story that you don’t tell. So somebody listens to you, and he can actually also make up his own story from there. Or really say, “Okay, yeah, that connects with me. I can relate to it,” and then it makes more sense.
One of the dangers for leaders focused on storytelling is that they get in this mode of always talking and never listening. You’ve learned that that’s not the best course. So how do you think about the role of listening for a storyteller?
It is very, very important, Steve. So maybe if you permit me to tell another story again.
So if you don’t listen, sometimes you jump to conclusions too quickly and can become very judgmental. So one of these days my daughter comes up to me. I think I was doing some work. She wanted something. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but as soon as I saw her coming up, in my mind I was convinced she was going to just be up to some mischief or something that I didn’t like. I told her to just leave, that I just needed to have my space. She was taken aback, and then she said, “Daddy, no. I just wanted to …” I think it was to give me something or something that I needed. And then I took a step back and I was like, “Okay. Here I am. I didn’t even just wait to hear somebody out.” I mean, I’d already basically jumped to conclusion and decided on the actions to take. So even though, yeah, I’ve had experience, led people in my workplace and all that, but sometimes you find out that you’re still not there.
It is very, very important actually that you do take that step back and, not just listen to what people say, but also listen to the things that they don’t say, and I think that’s also the most important thing. Because sometimes as leaders and the way we come across—just like the example I gave you, Steve, in my own personal space—the way we come across can preclude people from actually opening up and telling you the things that you need to know. And then, what that now means is so as a leader, you end up making decisions with limited amount of information. And we all know we live in a time where information is most critical.
So it is very, very important that you create that space and be deliberate, that people understand that you’re willing to listen. Not just to hear them, but to actually listen to them—to what they say and what they don’t say.
In your TED Talk, not only were you speaking about storytelling, but you also got the chance to work with some storytelling pros from the TED team in the process of crafting your talk. What did you learn from that experience that will affect the way you tell stories in the future?
So, I think one of the things that I learned working with them and with their guidance was reflection. Be more disciplined in preparing your story. I realized working with them, and then by the time we had the conversations and the story started coming out more strongly, you can zip through life without really stopping to assimilate all the things that you have learned. All the experiences that you have felt.
I can meet you for example, Steve, and a few years down the road I would probably sit and reflect on it and realize that, “Oh, okay. Actually at that moment, there was something that came out of it. Something that I learned, something that I actually probably did subconsciously.” So that’s one of the things that came out from my conversation with them. And it also helped me to actually understand when you talk about storytelling and leading teams or engaging people, so it’s slightly different from what I initially thought it was. So you have to be a little bit deliberate. You have to be prepared and strategic in the way you sequence the events and the emotions.
Let’s put it this way, Steve. Before I started working with the TED team, I would have classified myself as being more spontaneous in when I tell these stories. But what they taught me, actually, is to be more strategic and intentional.
We all have a story to tell. Our lives generally are stories. So it’s just good for people to reflect on it. And then let their stories show. That’s how you connect and you form meaningful relationships.
We’re all living in a golden age for resilience—we didn’t ask for it, but it’s here. The thing is, it’s also a golden opportunity to adapt, to create and to innovate. I promise you, when Billy and Chiwuike applied to do TED Talks, they both had an idea of what that would mean, and that idea included bright lights and a big stage, along with an adoring live audience. Instead, they each recorded their talks in a quiet room, with naught but a cameraman to supply that interpersonal feedback. But if you watch their talks—and I encourage you, go watch their talks—you’ll see that their stories of resiliency and creativity came through just as clearly, and maybe more so, because of the ways they had to adapt.
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