In my last post, I shared a hard truth: the world owes you nothing. Today I continue the series with another, related hard truth that innovators must learn.
As a young Air Force officer, I constantly raged against the machine. So much felt broken. Over the years I learned to manage my anger (somewhat) and tried to focus on creating solutions, but that introduced a new problem: I did not have the requisite authority. All I could do was pin my hopes on senior ranks, and perhaps someday join those ranks myself. Maybe I could acquire the influence to make a difference.
When I was a Major, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force visited my SAASS class for a group discussion. This was a man I had followed throughout my career, admired, and even revered. Over and over again, he deflected our questions about the entrenched problems the Air Force faced. He insisted he was powerless to change them. At one point, in a misguided effort to offer encouragement, he said, “This is why we need you to study and learn, so you can tackle these problems.”
The bottom fell out of my universe.
I had been laboring up through the ranks so I could finally have enough influence to make a difference. Now I saw the lie behind the game: I had been living in a hamster wheel. Our most senior leaders felt just as trapped as I did. If the highest-ranking Air Force officer was looking to a new generation of Majors to solve problems beyond his control, we were doomed. The whole thing was a vicious circle.
That was a critical moment in my career when I embraced a hard truth: the cavalry wasn’t coming. No savior-general would step in and reverse our fortunes. Magical decrees would not deliver sweeping reform. We were all in this together, regardless of our rank. We had to find our own way out of this mess, with whatever resources were at our disposal.
It is the same in any organization, any government, any social institution, any athletic pursuit, or artistic endeavor. Whenever we face a monumental challenge, we desperately want rescue. We want to find the senior leader champion, the investor, the journalist, or the key influencer who will change everything.
But this is the hard reality: the cavalry ain’t coming.
It is on us.
Life is not a Deus Ex Machina
A deux ex machina is a plot device typically attributed to Greek theater. The playwright would ensnare his or her characters in ever-worse complications until all hope of resolution seemed lost. Then, at a critical moment, divine intervention would occur; human actors playing gods would be elevated or lowered onto the stage. The Latin phrase deux ex machina literally means “god from the machine.”
The device continues to drive many works of fiction. When all hope seems lost, the Cavalry rides into the rescue.
I think of Gandalf promising Aragorn, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day.” The Battle of Helm’s Deep rages throughout the night, hope fades, and then in a moment of a desperate, final defiance Aragorn and Theoden ride out to meet the enemy. We expect a death worthy of legends, but at that very moment, Gandalf appears at the head of an army–which turns the tide of the battle.
If only life worked like that.
Occasionally it does, but only rarely.
The deus ex machina is a dangerous plot device that, if not carefully handled, leaves readers feeling cheated.* The best stories are those in which heroes take full responsibility for their actions and must find their own way out of their dilemmas. Think about Mark Watney and his colleagues in The Martian. Their every action introduces unforeseen consequences that ratchet up the stakes, but in the end, it is their ingenuity and teamwork that brings the story to a successful resolution. Stories like this satisfy us as readers but they also resonate with our own life experiences.
Chris Gardner–the man whose story was dramatized in The Pursuit of Happyness—described watching a Western with his mother when he was a child. As the film approached its climax the hero was alone, with no horse or sidekick, running low on ammunition. His eyes searched the horizon. He saw nothing but tumbleweed and cactus.
“See that,” Gardner’s mother told him. “The cavalry ain’t coming.”
She wanted Gardner to understand that the hero would have to save himself. Gardner says that the hero did indeed save himself, but:
his resolve and ingenuity did not kick in until he accepted that no cavalry had been sent to bail him out. He had to become his own cavalry.
He goes onto say that “the cavalry ain’t coming” is a state of mind and an attitude. It requires “taking stock of where you are, understanding how you got there, and then figuring out the steps necessary to get to where you want to be.”
(hat tip to Marelisa Fabrega, whose post on the same theme introduced me to this wonderful anecdote)
My own search for the cavalry
If you are leading change, founding a startup, or trying to create a great work of art, you must be attuned to this longing for rescue. Your alarm bells should sound any time you find yourself, as Gardner says, “gazing hopefully out to the horizon.”
When I founded and led the Syria Airlift Project, I was constantly hoping for rescue. I hoped to get on the radar of Jimmy Carter and Richard Branson. I pitched to the CEO of one of the biggest drone companies in North America. A team member spoke with Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria. We got our work in front of Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. A colleague briefed the project to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. In each case, I desperately hoped that the support of a high-level patron would change our fortunes. Speaking with these leaders was an important line of effort, but in retrospect, it was amazing how little tangible benefit any of these engagements brought us.
Nearly all of our growth came from modest, incremental steps forward. We would attend one conference and successfully recruit one volunteer. Our engagement with a CEO would yield a few thousand dollars worth of sponsored equipment and an ongoing relationship. A meeting with a politician would bring five new introductions, one of which brought up a remote opportunity of connecting with an aid organization in Jordan. Much of our time was spent relentlessly fighting for every single source of advantage. One advisor wisely told me that we needed to treat every single ally, partner, or donor–no matter how modest–as a million-dollar investor. Our hope of success rested with the accumulation of these small advantages.
My experience leading Rogue Squadron, an agile software development team in the Department of Defense, was similar. We had one deus ex machina when an early champion secured a large amount of funding, but even that introduced a ton of new complications to be solved. For the three years that followed, we worked tirelessly for every ounce of support. We interviewed up to 40 candidates for every open position. We spent months or even years courting other DoD organizations before they offered support. We spent a year tirelessly undoing a contracting mistake and writing our own replacement contract. Our battles were never-ending.
We are all in the same boat
My experience is not unique. If you are an entrepreneur founding a startup, your key currencies are funding and talent. Among your chief responsibilities are building and capitalizing a winning team, so you are constantly on the lookout for the individual people and the deals that will secure your future. It is all too easy to pin your hopes on a particular investor, a key customer, or a media event.
If you are an intrapreneur working inside a large organization, your key currency is influence. To succeed, you need to build a coalition of stakeholders who will help approve and execute your idea. It is tempting to pin all your hopes on a particular briefing to a particular leader. If I can just pitch to her, you think, everything will change. That can be true to an extent, but is sobering when you realize that your senior champion is just as entangled in red tape as you are. In most cases, your pitches will only yield incremental advantages. The responsibility still rests on your shoulders to stitch those little victories into a campaign plan that will yield success.
If you are an artist, nobody but you can do the hard work of creating a masterpiece–and then helping it succeed in a busy, distracted world. No publisher or publicist can substitute for your own relentless effort to create and promote excellent work that finds a loyal audience.
Even if you do receive a windfall of support in the form of a cavalry rescue, this will likely introduce as many new complications as it solves. Just ask any founder who lost control of their company to aggressive investors, or any government intrapreneur whose sleek idea was transformed into an unwieldy behemoth by institutional support.
The good news
Abandoning the hope of a cavalry rescue does not mean relinquishing the hope of success.
On the contrary, it means taking responsibility, using your creativity and imagination, and applying unceasing energy to the task before you. This mindset is really an extension of what I previously wrote, about getting over the idea that anyone owes you anything. Just as you should not plan on extensive support from within, you should not plan on rescue from without.
As you take responsibility, you find a few things:
- You have more authority than you think. There is usually something you can do at your level–whether that’s writing a paper, planning an event, creating a mockup, or meeting with stakeholders to learn more about a need. Once you start, magic can happen.
- Leaders are hungry for competent problem-solvers. Senior leaders are too busy to own execution of new ideas. They have even bigger problems than you do, and less time. So when an employee shows up with both vision and an ability to execute, leaders take notice. Finally an employee who can help solve their problems! This lays a foundation for a strong partnership that can multiply your chances of success.
- Relentless execution becomes a habit. As you internalize the mindset of executing at your level, it gets easier. You intuitively take stock of the resources available and the opportunities at hand. Your default posture becomes one of preparedness and action, rather than passive acceptance.
- Like-minded allies will find you. There are others like you. As you show responsibility and a commitment to action, you will find each other. You will help each other. Collaborations will emerge, ideas will be tested, and new opportunities will take shape.
- You will enter a continuous learning loop. You don’t learn much when the cavalry rides in to save you, or a champion gives you everything you dreamed of. However, when you have to draw on your own resources, you struggle. You learn. You fight for every ounce of support, and if it’s not forthcoming, you ask you yourself why. Your ideas are ruthlessly tested. If they aren’t good enough, you feel pain. That learning might be more valuable than your wished-for rescue.
Take responsibility. Execute at your level. Learn to be your own cavalry. That is how hard things get done, whether you are a CEO or a day-one employee.
P.S. I actually loved this scene in The Two Towers. It is high fantasy, and sometimes a skilled writer can make the device work. Still, the point stands.