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Project Management Gems from the Generals

I am a member of a LinkedIn group for former military officers, and I recently got into a disagreement with another member on the merits of the Project Management Professional (PMP) certificate,  from the Project Management Institute.


My observations on PMP certification is that the certification is costly due to its recurring toll charges, and that a fair number (not all!) of PMP certified project managers focus too heavily on the tools of project management (PERT charts, stop lights, risk lists, etc) and not enough on the people side of the equation.  Just to be clear – I think a PMP certification is not a bad thing, especially for fresh graduates.  I am not a fan of PMI’s toll bridge, especially for people who have been in the work force for a number of years, nor do I think that PMI certification is particularly helpful when it comes to leading Agile projects, something I have a good bit of experience in. The unfortunate aspect in all this is that many job postings require PMP – so I might be fighting a losing battle – but why run with the herd?

So following are a number of project management gems that I have learned over the years – all from famous generals – none of whom who were PMP certified.

“…I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States and Supreme Allied Commander Europe

If I was allowed to only list one quote on project management gems from the generals, it would be this one, and it is an anathema to many project managers. All too often I have seen executives and project managers focus heavily on “the plan” (which admittedly they are often given to implement) and not enough on planning.  Planning in the military is a painful, exhausting process. I was on the US Central Command team that helped plan the surge in Afghanistan in 2009. The team was over 200 people from multiple disciplines, who spent weeks working through scenarios and validating assumptions. Yes – the resources required for this level of planning are not often (if ever) seen in the private sector, but that’s not an excuse for the poor planning exercises I have seen. Often times, major projects are planned in days, with little validation of goals (let alone assumptions) and often by people not responsible for implementation. Birkdale’s Rule of Thumb on Project Planning – Every labor-year of effort in a project requires two labor-weeks of planning – maybe more.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton, Commander, 3rd US Army

By far, Patton’s best quote on leadership and management that is so often ignored.  I cannot tell you how many times I have watched project managers tell people how to do things rather than what was needed.  Birkdale’s Rule of Thumb on Giving Direction – There are two possible outcomes when you tell someone how to do something – either you won’t get what you want, or worse, you will get EXACTLY what you asked for.

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”  George S. Patton, Commander, 3rd US Army

Another gem from Patton. Large enterprises are often guilty of violating this one as the need to coordinate and collaborate across multiple silos slows the project to a crawl. This seems to violate Eisenhower’s gem above, but not really. Patton is merely applying the old saying “Don’t let perfection become the enemy of the good.”

“The most important thing I learned is that soldiers watch what their leaders do. You can give them classes and lecture them forever, but it is your personal example they will follow.”  Colin L.  Powell, General.

Don’t expect your team to be hitting their milestones if you don’t show up for meetings on time.

“There is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff during WWII.

The best project managers I have ever seen are the ones who publicly praise their team members. If your project manager is getting more credit than any one team member – something is wrong. There is a corollary to this gem – beware the “Hair on fire” project manager. “Hair on fire” project managers are the ones you bring in to fix a project,  tell you all the problems that they found, and their plans to fix things, without ever mentioning anything good about the project or team.

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”  Colin L. Powell, General

This holds true for any team – not just soldiers. The PM should be seen by the team as the one helps solve their problems, not someone who simply reports stoplights. The PM might not be capable of personally solving their problems, but the team should be confident enough to believe that the PM will take their problem seriously and look for solutions. Birkdale’s Counter-intuitive Rule of Thumb on Projects with Problems – It is a good thing to have projects with problems – that’s how people learn, and how teams bond.  It is not a good thing to have projects with problems and your PM finds out too late to do anything about it. One question I always ask my junior PMs is “What problems are you having?”. If I consistently hear “All good” – I know that either they are not looking for problems or no one is telling them about the problems.

Paperwork will ruin any military force.
—LtGen Lewis B. ”Chesty” Puller: “Marine,” 1962

We’ll end with this one. I’m not suggesting that project status reports are not necessary – they are. However, I am suggesting that if you think status reports and other project reporting paperwork don’t take away from the project – you are wrong.  If your project manager spends more time generating reports than working with their team, that is generally a red flag.

Have any Question or Comment?

6 comments on “Project Management Gems from the Generals


So many great quotes and experiences to reinforce them! I think it’s especially true that the team with “no problems” is actually in big trouble. Great insights!


Thanks LC! No problems means no learning. You don’t want to be overwhelmed with problems, but you want some.


Great insight into project management discipline. I agree that PMP defines the technical boundary line or framework which acts like a guidance to new managers. I would however flip the coin and move focus away from the authority (in this case project manager’s approach) and instead look at the ways where team member needs to be proactive/vigilant on how to influence manager irrespective of their personalities. You can control your behavior and not others.


So true Sonika! I once was in a military unit where the Commander had been relieved of duty. The new commander came in, called the leadership team into a room, and reminded everyone that they only fire the commander once – after that, they remove team members. He reminded us all that day that its not just the leader who is responsible for team success – but all of us.


Project Management quotes or Leadership quotes? To often I find that management results are easily tabulated and recorded on paper. By contrast leadership results are not always easily tracked but should be more highly valued. This is only because leadership takes a bit of time to be cultivated with the staff. After all we all can’t walk into a room with a star or two on our shoulder and automatically get that jump start of leadership and respect.


Good points. As I thought about your comment, it struck me that, at least in the Air Force, there is no “Project Management” career field. Our training focuses on functional expertise (pilot, logistician, IT, nurse etc) and leadership. We are expected to manage projects – yes, we do take courses in PM, but the focus of your job is not project management, but leadership. All that aside, I do think some of these gems can be directly applied to project management. Thanks BillB!


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