Full Contact Project Management
Face to Face with my own Prejudices
This is one of those lessons that I am both embarrassed to admit, but glad I have the chance to confess.
My wife and I were on a cruise, thoroughly enjoying ourselves, and were about to eat dinner that final night of the voyage. We went into the dining room, where the seating was unassigned, and the maitre de took us to a table. I always enjoy sitting at large tables and meeting new folks, so we followed his lead.
Walking through the dining room, I saw lots of available seats, at plenty of large tables, none of which seemed to interest him. Everybody looked pretty interesting to me, except for the one table for four which had only one couple sitting there. I spied them, and they each had a good 20 years on me; pretty elderly, so I was sure that it was the one table I needed to avoid.
The maitre de apparently knew differently, and showed us to that table. It occurred to me, after the fact, that I had an extreme prejudice: Call it ‘ageism’ if you like. I had decided, ahead of time, that this last evening’s meal was going to be horrible, but that somehow I just had to get through it.
That’s how we met Herb and Margo. I’ve met other people that way over the years, and I’ll bet that you have, too. We’ve probably hired and fired employees, suppliers and subcontractors that way, as well.
I wanted to tell you about this couple, since this calendar year, I’ve been focusing on lessons from famous leaders. It’s tempting to think, after listening to Abraham Lincoln, General Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and so on, “Sure, they can do it. They’re big, important people. I’m not.”
This thinking is precisely why you need to meet Herb and Margo.
Let’s begin with Herb. He was a World War II, U.S. Air Force B-24 bomber pilot. On one mission, after losing one of his four engines, he still managed to fly his plane back to his base. On another mission over Munich, June 10, 1944, he was “tail-end Charlie,” the last plane in a formation of 400 B-24s on a bombing run. (I can’t even comprehend a group that large; can you? Imagine what the sky looked like and how it all sounded.) His primary mission in this formation was to provide cover for the group, so they were not attacked from the rear.
During the raid over Munich, there was heavy flak, two of his crew members were hit by it, and killed. He also lost two engines, both of them on the left side of the plane. After dropping his bomb load, he headed for his base, and had to struggle to get over the Alps – no small task with two engines. Then, over the Adriatic, he lost a third engine, began losing altitude, couldn’t stay in the air, and finally had to ditch his plane in the sea. In doing so, he went through the windshield of the plane. But because of his skills as a pilot, he and the seven remaining crew members survived, and were rescued at sea by an RAF amphibian plane. And after all of that, he still flew two more missions!
Margo was a Holocaust survivor. That’s right: She was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. She was a young girl, and made friends with another girl in the camp: Anne Frank (if you don’t know that name, you need to read “The Diary of Anne Frank”). Sometime after Anne was gassed to death there at the camp, and before it was Margo’s turn to suffer the same fate, the camp was liberated by British paratroopers. The image of those paratroopers became the title of the book she wrote, “When the Sky Rained Umbrellas.” To the child, Margo, who had never seen a parachute before, she thought they looked like umbrellas. We actually ate dinner with these heroes, despite my best intentions and my prejudices.
Why did I want to bring these two, ordinary – but extraordinary – people to your attention? Because my most recent messages have been about hanging in there, and keeping your business and your family afloat. Today’s message is: Sure, the economy is nasty. Things look really bad. We all wonder how we’ll survive. But let’s put this into perspective. Is it as bad as a pilot with a shot-up plane, two dead crewmen, three of your engines shot up and dead, declining altitude over the Adriatic, with the lives of seven other people in your hands, and you need you to put the thing down in the water? I don’t think so.
Or, are things as bad as they were for a little girl, trying to survive on almost no food, with a monstrous jail keeper, her family and friends dropping dead around her or disappearing altogether? Probably not.
Before our next pity party, let’s all resolve to remember the teenage girl and the 20-something pilot, both surviving and navigating the worst that life can throw at them. Rescued by paratroopers and rescued at sea: They survived, met each other, and live now in California.
And when you think about keeping that business of yours afloat—and wonder how you can possibly do it, think about Herb and seven other guys, bleeding and bobbing around in the water. Now, that’s really hanging on and keeping afloat. By comparison, what we have to do is just about a piece of cake, isn’t it? You can do this!
Well, in spite of my prejudice – because I was not allowed to exercise it – I met two of the most fascinating people ever. I’ve been on lots of cruises and enjoyed them all, but let me say this without hesitation: That dinner was the best part of the entire trip, and I almost missed it.
Let me encourage you to not make stupid judgments before you know all the facts. Seek wisdom and encouragement from those who have gone before you. Who knows? You just might find yourself someday with a chance to sit at the same table with Herb and Margo, and what a shame it would be for you to miss that.
Copyright 2011 Gary Micheloni