In the countryside west of Washington, D.C., mega-leadership is at work on a series of “mega-projects“. Among them, the extension of the metro rail system to Dulles International Airport (IAD), the planning for the budding metropolis of Tysons Corner and the installation of four new HOT toll lanes along the Capital Beltway/Route 495 from Springfield to Tysons Corner, Virginia. The HOT project requires the removal and rebuilding of 58 bridges, re-routing of traffic, and roadway closures all along a 12 mile stretch of one of the country’s busiest interstate highways. It’s misery for drivers and rush hour becomes an oxymoronic concept of the highest order.
The scale of these projects sets one to wondering about the sheer scope of new talents, capabilities and skills that are essential to the success of mega-leaders facing mega-issues or mega-projects. For simplicity of this post, let’s call them “mega-anything”. It’s a daunting list. And it’s made more real by the experience of witnessing firsthand the frustration and vivid confusion of so many followers when confronted by the complexity and enormity of mega-anything. The time for mega-leadership has come, but what does it mean for you as a leader? Can you become a mega-leader?
For one it means deploying highly evolved and proactive communication skills. Followers simply won’t tolerate command and control style communications. Unless they know (or ever more likely “feel”) listened to, your chances of success are scant. In one community meeting held by the HOV lane contractors, a citizen railed loudly and vigorously against the contractor’s plan to install traffic lights on the Capital Beltway. Never mind that no one ever suggested such a plan. There was no stopping the tirade once it started. As a mega-leader a communications plan that only considers plan a or plan b won’t cut it. You need to be thinking three, four or five steps ahead of the crowd.
Mega-anything create bumpy rides. Everyone needs to be strapped in and holding on tight. The kinds of change brought about by mega-anything requires a lot of nimbleness and flexibility on everyone’s part. Preparing your followers for the likely trouble spots, the consequences of inaction or the crying need for urgency will serve to clarify the need for action and attention. It also helps immensely to provide expectations and clear markers of progress everyone can visualize and access.
The speed of progress for mega-anything will vary considerably. Some days progress will be measured in inches, other days in miles. Followers need to understand this explicitly. There’s a lot of frustration that accompanies mega-anything. In the midst of the project, there will naysayers who will question the value of everything that has gone before and sincerely doubt the wisdom of continuing forward. “Shut it down and forget about it” they will say. “It’s not worth the disruption.” Their fear is palpable and although it is often disguised in logic and rationale discourse about chaos or absence of value, it reflects the organic pain of mega-anything. This work is not easy. For those with otherwise busy or complex lives, the change and pressures demanded by mega-anything may be too much. Mega-leaders know that and deploy strategies to minimize those fears and resistance.
The temptation to find “evil-doers” or vilify those responsible for the planning and implementation of mega-anything is more likely than not. In the mega-projects around Washington, D.C., that became labor unions. Even in the face of a longstanding practice of using project labor agreements to minimize disruptions and project delays between unions and contractors, Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell withheld project funds as those agreements became a focal point for funding debates among politicians and community groups.
When it comes to mega-issues you need only look to the strident debates over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the recent United State Supreme Court decisions on its constitutionality. Depending where you looked or listened, American society was either doomed or saved by the Supreme Court’s decision. The polarizing rhetoric and hyperbole of politicians, political and community groups on both sides of the issue stretched the reality of the moment far beyond the reality of the situation and circumstances. As a mega-leader, keeping your focus on the goal line becomes essential to maintaining your perspective and sanity especially in the face of vitriolic discourse. Every leader knows there are times when you must keep your own counsel. Mega-anything is fertile ground for doing so.
As a mega-leader holding a 360 degree perspective as part of your preparation is a must. Recognizing the vulnerabilities across the political, emotional, and ideological spectrum of your mega-project is key. Knowing the realities of your followers in a deep and empathetic fashion and being prepared to address the extreme elements of debate are cornerstones to success of mega-anything.
And finally mega-leaders need to share in the wisdom of advocates and allies. Every mega leader needs mega-followers. There are people who will be attracted to your bold vision, tenacity and passion. They will question your approach and challenge your ideas while heartily supporting and engaging in your efforts to make mega-anything happen. Savvy mega-leaders never take these allies for granted. You need to fuel their commitment by recognizing their extraordinary willingness to engage in a vision unproven and perhaps wildly unpopular among their colleagues. Engaging them proactively as messengers sharing the vision and stories of success will be a powerful reminder to others that progress is possible even in the face of complexity, overwhelming challenges and an unpredictable future. And that’s the real job of leaders everywhere.