My Big Fail: Personal Resilience and Project Leadership

Last week, I mentioned that one of the most important things to do, when things go wrong, is to look after yourself.

This is important to me, and formed a chapter in Brilliant Project Leader, because it was at the heart of my biggest failure as a project manager. We were working long hours away from home. I was catching the first flight on a Monday morning and returning on the last flight on Friday. I was getting into the office earlier and earlier to try to get there before my team did, so I could get some quality thinking time and working time. And we were all staying late – midnight was not uncommon as go-live approached, and pizzas for fifty at 10pm was starting to feel like a routine. I still have my gift set of Dominoes from a well known pizza company for whom I was a regular and high-flying customer for a couple of months.

I was tired physically and mentally exhausted. It not help that the dynamic between me and another senior manager was, let us say, strained. My diet was pizza, sandwiches and black coffee (I hated the the whitener and don’t even ask an Englishman about tea on the continent). The offices were air conditioned, fluorescent boxes and the outside temperatures were often bitter. I slept poorly in my hotel rooms and had no time for exercise. So when the project hit crisis, I frankly crumpled and took a couple of days to regain any sense of perspective and composure. It felt awful and, whilst I know that the combination of circumstances could all have been handled easily and effectively, I was in no state to do so at the time.

Stress is a Project Killer

We got through – largely despite me in the first 48 hours. The project went on to be a success. It id not have to be that way… and would not have been had the crisis been worse or the people who took the load been less capable.

Stress leads to exhaustion leads to a complete loss of perspective – which probably triggered the crisis. It certainly severely curtailed my ability to handle it. So what is the cause of stress?


Stress arises from a feeling of not being in control. It is a psychological and physiological response to to pressures that we feel unable to deal with*. The way to handle stress is therefore to restore your sense of control. You can do this in one of five domains:

  1. Physiology
    Take control of your diet and eating, your rest and relaxation, and your exercise and activity. Not only are all of these important in building up mental and physical resilience, but taking action on them puts you in control.
  2. Psychology
    When we feel stressed, our focus is drawn towards the stressor to an overwhelming degree – we can see little else. You need to consciously focus on points of control, resources, colleagues and friends.
  3. Environment
    It sounds trivial, but making small, deliberate changes to your environment, your home or office workspace or even your garden will shift your sense of control. For many people, taking ten minutes to tidy and organise desks, shelves, drawers or email inbox will have a profound impact.
  4. Values
    A big source of stress is the conflict between your values and what you feel bound to do. And it will remain a stressor while you do not feel in control of your values. Take time to think about what is most important to you in your situation and make a plan that either focuses on it or, at the very least, will address it in a structured way.
  5. Time
    Time is a major stressor for project managers, so use your three most valuable time management tools:
    ruthless prioritisation
    planning your day
    the ability to say NO

* Actually, as a physicist, I know that stress is actually an imposed force and that strain is the proper word we use for the response to it. The medical/psychological/pop use of the word stress gets it just about completely wrong, which is why my seminar on handling stress is called ‘It ain’t the Stress that does the Damage’ – it’s the strain: your response to the stressors. But even in my book, ‘Brilliant stress Management’ i avoided bucking the trend of common usage. Sorry physicists.


BrilliantStressManagement_Jacket_final BrilliantProjectLeaderCover


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