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Three Lessons in Courage from The Green Knight

There are many ingredients that enable us to influence others, including perhaps the hardest to achieve—courage. Unless we have the courage to recommend the right things for our organizations, to speak out when we think our stakeholders are on the wrong path, and to promote workable solutions that are unpopular with executives, we cannot hope to be influential. As PMs and BAs we need to be able to influence others as part of our job. And that takes courage.

I have always loved fantasy books/movies as well as those where the characters grow because they have found the courage to complete difficult tasks. That is why the Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been one of my favorites. And I remember loving the fourteenth-century poem that I read decades ago in college, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Seeing the movie The Green Knight, which is based on that poem, reminded my why—it’s a fantasy story about courage.

Sir Gawain, a knight in King Arthur’s court, undertakes a treacherous journey to fulfill a promise. The story is about integrity, knowing what is right and wrong, and making and meeting commitments—and the consequences of not doing so. There are many lessons BAs and PMs can learn about courage from the story. I’ve chosen 3 to discuss here.

Lesson #1 – It takes courage to make commitments

The story. The poem begins on Christmas when King Arthur’s knights and relatives are gathered for a feast. Among the knights is Sir Gawain, the king’s nephew. Then an uninvited guest, a green giant riding a giant green horse and wielding a giant green axe barges in and addresses the king and guests with a challenge: “Who will take this axe and cut off my head? If you accept this challenge, you must meet me in a year at my green chapel. At that time I’ll decide whether or not to cut off your head.” No one says a word. “The Green Knight taunts the gathering– I have heard so much about the bravery of King Arthur’s knights. Not one of you is has the courage to accept this challenge?” Finally, Sir Gawain does so. He takes the axe and lops off the head of the Green Knight. To everyone’s amazement, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off, reminding Gawain to meet him in one year. By accepting the Green Knight’s challenge, Sir Gawain makes a serious commitment. Although he has no idea of the specifics of the difficulties he will encounter along the way, he knows the end result may be his death.

Lessons for BAs and PMs. We may not always realize how important it is to make commitments. I had a boss who never had to meet commitments because he never made any. Making commitments can be scary. Those of us who have been in meetings with intimidating executives know how hard it can be to speak up when presented with unreasonable expectations. We need to let our stakeholders know that we must do our homework before making commitments. But we cannot avoid making them altogether.

Lesson #2 – It takes courage to be transparent about what prevents us from meeting those commitments

The story. On his way to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight, Sir Gawain stops at a castle where most of the poem takes place. The castle is owned by an unnamed lord and his wife. The lord, who we later learn is actually the Green Knight, is a great hunter and makes a bargain with Sir Gawain: “Whatever I capture on the hunt will be yours,” he says, “but you’ll have to give me whatever you get here in the castle.” Sir Gawain agrees to the exchange. While the lord is out on a hunt, his wife urges Gawain to take a green sash. She says if he always wears it, he will be protected from all danger. Reluctantly Gawain takes it but keeps it a secret from her husband. The lord tells Gawain that he knows about the sash and that his wife was sent to test Gawain’s honor. Gawain knows he has failed the test.

Lessons for BAs and PMs As PMs and BAs, there are almost always unexpected issues that arise that can prevent us from meeting our end of the project “bargain.” We often ignore these issues thinking they will resolve themselves. When these issues get in the way of our commitments, we think of lots of reasons not to tell our sponsors. We don’t want to let them know that their expectations, for a variety of good and not-so good reasons, will not be met. It’s easy to be guided by the faulty thinking that we can make up that time or that the sponsor will never find out. I have found, however, that sponsors generally admire transparency, as painful as it sometimes is.

Lesson #3 It takes courage to volunteer for difficult tasks. However, the inevitable pain can be mitigated by courageously admitting problems and errors as they occur.

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The story. At the beginning of the poem, before the Green Knight interrupts the festivities, King Arthur wants to hear of brave deeds done during the past year. Unlike the other knights, Sir Gawain has none to relate. He realizes that to attain his goal of becoming a legend, he will have to endure pain and put his life in danger. So when the Green Knight challenges the court, Sir Gawain knows he has to accept that challenge. Sure, it may cost him his life, but it’s his best chance to become a legend that will endure throughout time.

When Sir Gawain, thoroughly ashamed of his cowardice, faces the Green Knight, he offers to return the green sash. The Green Knight tells him to keep it as a reminder of disloyalty and dishonor. The Green Knight does not kill him. He knicks his neck and admonishes him to remember the lessons he’s learned.

Lessons for BAs and PMs As a BA I once worked for a PM who used to dread being assigned large, visible projects. He thought of them as dragons peering around the corner of our cubicles. You could see the head and that was scary enough. But once more of the project/dragon was revealed, it would be larger and scarier than anyone could imagine. I’ve always enjoyed challenging projects but not the pain that invariably accompanies these efforts —dealing with conflict, scope creep, missed deadlines, stakeholders unhappy with the final product, stakeholders not believing the results are accurate, sponsors happy with the project, but unhappy stakeholders and team members who were not– or vice versa. Volunteering for difficult tasks with the knowledge that they will be painful at times may seem foolhardy. But the if we face our mistakes, conflict, unforeseen delays, and stakeholders’ dissatisfaction with courage, we just might earn respect and positive recognition, and we will likely be highly sought-after for future initiatives.

Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CSM, PMI-PBA is a consultant and advisor for Watermark Learning/Project Management Academy, and has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes keynotes and presentations for national and international conferences on five continents. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.