Practice Patience for Productivity

By Geof Lory

I recently read a quote from General Norman Schwarzkopf: "Great leaders never tell people how to do their jobs. Great leaders tell the people what needs to be done and establish a framework within which it must be done. Then they let the people on the front lines, who know best, figure out how to get it done." This came from a man who commanded tens of thousands of troops in life and death situations in a rigidly structured hierarchical culture. I enjoyed this quote not only for its relevance and insight, but also for its audacity. As General Schwarzkopf commanded, he also acknowledged his true control is limited.

In previous articles, I have similarly acknowledged that as a parent of two teenage daughters my ability to command and/or control them wanes with every passing semester. As they struggle to develop their individuality, they allow me to help them less and less. I have to acknowledge that my primary job as a parent -- to work myself out of a job -- is quickly coming to its inevitable destination.

However, my learnings as a parent have not been exclusively from my daughters. I may be a parent, but I am also a husband to my wife Beth and the son of my parents, who fortunately are still healthy and remain great teachers in their own subtle way.

Just recently my parents were in town for a visit. They live about 600 miles away, so we only see them a few times a year. It is always a treat when they come out, and we enjoy our time with them. I have many stories to tell from my childhood where I learned the foundation of both my project management and parenting disciplines, not through direct instruction, but indirectly through example and encouragement. Well, this time with my parents was no different than any other. I knew that if I kept my eyes and mind open to the possibility, I would again learn something from them.

My parents are not extremely extroverted people. We grew up grounded in family behavior and lots of family activities. Friday and Saturday nights were always family time, especially in the winter. We played games, and a lot of cards. I can remember playing Pinochle when I was too young to hold all the cards, so Mom would take a flat box and turn it upside down and I'd stick the cards in the slot between the top and bottom. My daughters are no different. They grew up playing cards. My wife, the girl's stepmother, however, never really played cards growing up. Her family activities were theatre and art.

I have always wanted Beth to learn to play cards, but she has shown little interest, and even less in hearing me try to explain the intricate nuances of Euchre or Hearts. So imagine my surprise when my parents suggested we play cards and she said "sure." This was new behavior, and a difference is always a time to learn. What was different here? Why was she open to their invitation but never open to mine? I realized that it was the environment my parents create when they are around. They are patient and unassuming, understanding and supportive. In their eyes there is no judgment, only compassion and acceptance.

As a project manager in a position of leadership and often command, teaching can sometimes look temptingly like an opportunity to convey my knowledge to those less informed. But I have learned that my parent's style to encourage the learning out of others and support them in the process can be more effective. This is how I remember learning to play cards. Mistakes were allowed, but after each hand or game, opportunities for learning were discussed as each helped the other learn how well it was played or how it might have been played differently.

So, when Beth took the bait, I was all over it and got the Cribbage board out in about 10 seconds. (Actually, it took me almost 15 minutes to find the board since it hadn't been used in over seven years and I couldn't remember where I put it.) The game started with a few simple rules, pairs and fifteens, and with each hand my parents built on her experience. She was having a good time, and fate was rewarding her with some good cards. With every hand her confidence grew. Her enjoyment of what heretofore had been something she avoided was now a treat to watch. Unfortunately for me she teamed with my Dad, so my Mom and I were thoroughly humiliated -- and by a novice no less.

I went to bed that night and reflected on how effective my parent's patience was. In a few short hours they were able to nurture out of Beth what I had been unable to coax or coach out of her for seven years. In fact, she was so interested in Cribbage that we had to have a rematch the following night. As luck would have it, Beth and Dad once again embarrassed Mom and me, and the lessons were reinforced all the more.

Sometimes, in our parochial urgency, we try to push against resistance rather than allow it to unfold by creating an accepting and nurturing environment for it to become what it can. This applies to all of those we come in contact with, and especially in our roles as team leads and project managers. How often during meetings have we pressed our ideas, been met with skeptical resistance, and ended up frustrated or pulling out our command-and-control trump card? Not effective in the long run.

I don't come by patience naturally, although you would think I would have if you believe it is genetic. And I suspect I am not alone in this way among my project manager peers. So I look for places and opportunities to practice patience. Certainly, plenty of chances for this arise at home and at work. In our busy and hectic lives this may seem like heresy but, from one "Type A" person to another, it works. Your relationships with your children and your teammates will be better for it. And your blood pressure may even go down. Mine did.

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