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A holiday card to the industry – 1999 (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Gary Fuller and I worked together early in my consulting career. He oversaw the network technicians; I ran the help desk, so we found ourselves collaborating a lot.

Gary was a friend the way many colleagues are friends — we enjoyed working together and schmoozed during breaks, but we didn’t socialize after hours. Older then me, and with more consulting experience, he also served as a mentor when I needed one, even when I didn’t recognize the need.

After a while our employer — one of the hundreds of small consulting companies that specialize in government contracting — tapped each of us to lead new accounts. We both saw our new roles as opportunities, so off we went. We seldom saw each other after that — for the most part we each worked on-site with our clients and got together only for the monthly project manager meeting.

Both of our contracts were underbid … badly underbid. It was that kind of company, and if it wasn’t, another Beltway Bandit would have undercut us, and the federal government always goes with the low bidder. Because our contracts were underbid, Gary and I were both under a great deal of stress. Every day was another crisis, and the only way to keep our heads above water was to work too-long days and too many of them.

They told me the next day that when Gary came into the office he had largely lost his composure. I couldn’t even imagine it. The part of Gary’s character I admired most was that no matter how tense the situation he always seemed relaxed and in control. He was under deadline pressure, though, there was no way his team could make the delivery date, and he was frantic.

Then his heart failed and he dropped dead on the office floor.

A burial in Arlington Cemetery is a moving experience. Gary had served in the armed forces. He had been a master sergeant in the Air Force if memory serves, which entitled him to a four gun salute. Memory fades over the years, replaced by memories of memories, and sometimes by nothing at all. I remember little of the event — only the rows of identical white headstones stretching to the horizon, a chill in the still air, and how startlingly loud the rifles were.

And my realization of how easily the same thing could happen to me. Change requires a life-threatening experience. I called some people in Minneapolis and moved back shortly thereafter.

Our field sometimes calls for 18-hour days and six-day or seven-day weeks. It’s true if you’re a developer, it’s true if you’re a system administrator, and it’s true if you’re in a leadership role … especially if you’re in a leadership role. To a certain extent it’s even healthy — it builds a sense of camaraderie and reinforces the importance of the work.

The sprint, though, is for the end of the race, not for the entire marathon, and when crisis is a way of life and not an exceptional event, there’s something wrong. If you’re the reason crisis is a way of life — if you can’t figure out how to budget, organize, and allocate work so employees can usually get their work done during regular office hours — then at some point in your career your leadership will result in tragedy.

Deadlines must be more than important. When a deadline approaches you need a common mindset that missing it isn’t an acceptable outcome. That deadline must be the most important thing in the world — the common goal, personal objective, and sole purpose for every team member’s existence.

But … it isn’t.

When you motivate your teams to reach their deadlines, think about how you make the deadline important. Fear of failure is the most convenient tool, but it isn’t the best one. Working hard because you’re afraid is what leads to burn-out, and worse.

The best employees aren’t afraid to fail — they’re driven to succeed, take pride in achieving the near-impossible, and find joy in the process of doing so. Great leadership inspires and encourages that attitude.

Great leadership also recognizes when it’s time to celebrate, and to rest.

Have a happy holiday season.