A Project Management Tip from… General Norman Schwarzkopf

What can the military teach you about running a better business? General ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf is probably one of the best known US military strategists in recent times.

An analysis of how military leaders organize resources, champion team leads, and schedule conflicting priorities helps us organize our business on a smaller scale.

What Business Managers Can Learn From the Military

Donovan Campbell, a Princeton-educated former Marine published a bestselling memoir called Joker One about his experience as a platoon leader in Iraq.

He says, “Combat experience was very humbling, because mistakes happen. What you learn in the military is that it doesn’t matter how hard you try or how good you are. One, you will make mistakes; and two, sometimes events or the enemy or a changing situation will mean that you do not succeed, and in fact you fail. And you become comfortable with the idea of, I do not have to have zero defects to be successful.”

With this in mind, successful military leaders develop a ‘core identify’ that lets them:

  • Focus on their followers
  • Relegate their own safety to protect their own team
  • Lead from the front
  • Work with their employees on the ground, e.g. dine in the same canteens
  • Share risks

The result? High levels of trust and loyalty.

Leadership Based on Service

What’s interesting for me when I read military biographies is that the greatest leaders often position themselves as ‘servants’ to their staff, which conflicts with the stereotype we have of most leaders, especially celebrity CEOs.

For example, a successful leader asks herself, ‘what can I do to give my team the resources they need, the tools to succeed, and empower them to take action?’

Contrast this with negative leadership styles where micro-management stifles any risk-taking and creates a culture of fear.

Rachel Hall reminds us that military leaders have ‘the ability to see a project through to the end and the ability to not allow themselves to deviate from their goals.’

What is real leadership?

Here’s my definition.

Leadership is given followers what they need in any given context. 

Research has shown that competence is the most important attribute we look for in a leader.

In dangerous, or stressful situations, this translates into given others the confidence that you know what you’re doing. Once they ‘feel’ this to be true, they are more likely to follow and take direction.

Skip Weisman shares an interesting anecdote about a 2nd Lieutenant who suggested that following retirement from the military he would like to become a “leadership” coach to businesses and organizations.

‘He told me that one of the most impressive lessons of his training was learning the importance of putting your rank/title aside so leader/managers can be mentored by those with greater experience, more current or more comprehensive knowledge.’

Sacrificing Leaders Against the Core Mission

Another point is that leaders understand – and encourage others to recognize – that the importance of the company’s mission is far more important than their own needs.

This means leaders will often relegate their own needs as long as it supports the company’s over-arching aims.

My success is your success

If you read the histories of Julius Caesar, you’ll notice that when he conquered a city the booty (rewards) were shared amongst his soldiers.

Like most great leaders he lead from the front and engaged in direct conflict with his enemies. Caesar wasn’t interested in personal wealth per se. But he wanted his soldiers to know: my success is your success.

As a leader, you can’t reward yourself extravagantly and expect your workers not to feel conflicted. After all, you’re reaping the rewards of their hard work.

Furthermore, if you jump ship with a golden handshake, how will this affect those left behind? How you reward yourself (and others) is a key part in maintaining the loyalty of others.


Competence is the number one attribute followers look for in a leader.

How do you develop competence? For all of us this will be different. However, the silver lining is that the more you develop a deep knowledge of your area of speciality, the more you can influence others.

Think about this. Influence is determined by competence.

Now, how do you get there?