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General George S. Patton

We’re going to break from our pattern in this series of articles and devote this one to General George Patton. Patton was definitely not a project manager; he was a General in the United States Army (as was Leslie Groves). Our reason for selecting Patton is simple. Many of the traits that make a good project manager also make a good general. I’m referring to leadership traits and the ability to think outside the box in order to accomplish difficult objectives. These are applied to military objectives in Patton’s case and to the accomplishment of a project’s goals and objectives in the case of our other remarkable project managers.

We will be focusing our attention on his army’s remarkable accomplishment in the Battle of Bastogne when Patton led the effort to relieve that besieged town. Patton was responsible for many military accomplishments, but this is possibly the best known. It is famous because of the strategic importance of Bastogne to the "Battle of the Bulge”, the Nazi’s last desperate effort to turn the tide of World War II around in the area of the Ardennes forest. The defeat of the Germans in this battle was one of the keys to bringing the war to its conclusion and Patton’s relief of the besieged town was critical to winning the battle.

The Situation

Bastogne is a Belgian town which controlled several key roads in the area of the Ardennes forest, so the Germans viewed this as a key town to take to begin their offensive. The offensive was intended to drive the Allies back to the coast and seize the port of Antwerp. Possession of this port was critical to the Allies because it was the only port in Allied control which was large enough to manage the huge volume of supplies needed to support the Allied troops in France, Holland, and Belgium.

The 28th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army had responsibility for holding the Ardennes area, including Bastogne. The Allies did not believe that they were facing German forces that were in any condition to fight and the Ardennes offensive came as a complete surprise. Battle lines were not well placed or defended; indeed some of the villages in the line were not defended at all during the night. The Germans gave the task of taking Bastogne to the XLVII (48th) Panzer Corps. To put the situation in better perspective for you, let’s examine some army terms and numbers. A Corps is made up of from 2 to 7 Divisions and numbers from 50,000 to 300,000 troops. A Division is made up of from 12,000 to 20,000 troops. The Germans were devoting 3 divisions of the XLVII Corps to taking Bastogne, the Americans were holding it with 2 battalions of the 110th Regiment, or approx. 11,000 troops.

The Germans launched their attack on the morning of December 16th, 1944 and caught the Americans completely by surprise. The Germans used their vast numerical superiority to press their attack and despite some unexpected delays in their advance, they succeeded in rolling the American forces back to Bastogne by December 19th and the 28th moved their headquarters there from the village of Wiltz. The outnumbered American forces were unable to stop the advance of the Panzer corps from advancing but they were successful in putting the advance 2 days behind schedule.

The 101st Airborne Division was sent in to bolster the handful of troops left defending Bastogne; they formed a defensive perimeter around the town with infantry and heavy artillery. Gen. Von Luttwitz, the German commander of the XLVII Panzer Corp, ordered his 2nd Panzer Division to break the perimeter and take the town. By noon on December 21st Von Luttwitz had succeeded in completing the encirclement of Bastogne by cutting off all roads approaching Bastogne. The weather was bad, this was one of the worst winters Europe had known in years, and relief by air was impossible. The 101st were poorly equipped for the winter campaign; rations and ammunition were in short supply. The orders were that Bastogne was to be held at any cost (Americans) and to be taken at any cost (Germans). The situation was desperate for the Americans. They were outnumbered, there supply lines were cut off, they weren’t properly clothed or equipped for a winter battle, and relief from the air was impossible due to the bad weather.

The Rescue

General George S. Patton was in command of 3rd Army and had overall responsibility for dealing with the German offensive in the Ardennes. One of his first actions was to bring relief to the encircled forces in Bastogne, but before he did that he had an army chaplain say a prayer for just 24 hours of good weather. I’ve never personally prayed for good results on a project but based on Patton’s results it might be worth trying. When the chaplain’s prayers were answered, Patton awarded him a Bronze Star.

Now Patton was ready to drive north to Bastogne, but in order to do this he had to disengage the 3rd army from the battle line and make the turn. Disengaging troops from a battle is an extremely difficult maneuver to execute. This was such a notable accomplishment that many military historians consider this Patton’s most remarkable accomplishment of the war. Disengaging an army from a series of battles takes troops who are very well trained and disciplined and Patton had those troops. He had them because he had taken very great care to invest in the training. He was also a very demanding leader who could, and did, ask for results from his troops that other commanders could not. He would get those results too, as he did in this case.

General Patton had proven his ability to lead in the field in North Africa, where he took a whipped and 2nd Corp, restored morale, and returned them to winning form. He handed that army off to General Omar Bradley so he could lead the American invasion of Sicily. He restored morale to the 7th with personal visits to units and ensuring that the troops were properly trained and discipline restored. That attention to detail and interaction with the troops was what made him a great leader and enabled the 3rd Army to disengage from battle.

Patton was given the order to punch through the German forces surrounding Bastogne by General Dwight D. Eisenhower on December 23rd. Patton’s 3rd Army was engaged in the south near Saarbrucken over 100 miles from Bastogne. By December 26th, elements of the 3rd had succeeded in breaking off their engagement, turning 90 degrees to the north and punching through the encircling German forces. The breaking off the engagement was the first demonstration of Patton’s leadership capabilities, marching his forces over 100 miles, without rest, with all the baggage that a well equipped army must carry, in the dead of a brutal winter was the next. That’s a rate of over 30 miles each day. If you want some idea of the magnitude of this feat, just try walking 30 miles in one day. Then try it in winter conditions with a good weight on your back. Patton’s last demonstration of leadership was the fact that after the forced march, undertaken without a break since their engagement near Saarbrucken, his forces still had the stamina and discipline in engaging the German forces and succeed in breaking through them.

One more success that we can attribute to Patton was the effect that news of the 3rd Army’s relief effort had on the besieged troops in Bastogne. The 101st were exhausted, hungry, and running low on ammunition by the 23rd of December. They had been under siege since the 20th with no relief from the ground or air and they were being besieged by a force that was numerically considerably larger. News that Patton’s army had undertaken their relief boosted morale in the 101st and their successful defense of the town in the intervening 3 days may be partly attributable to that morale boost.

More elements of the 3rd Army followed up this advantage, opening the "Assenois” corridor. Following that success, the re-supply of the town and evacuation of the wounded was undertaken, using that corridor. The tired men of the 101st expected to be moved to the rear for rest and recuperation. Instead they were ordered to resume the offensive. From that point forward the Battle of the Bulge was lost for the Germans and the retreat the onset of the battle had reversed, was resumed.

Lessons for Project Managers

Eisenhower’s command that Patton relieve Bastogne before it fell put Patton on the spot, which is exactly where he wanted to be. He couldn’t know to a certainty that his army would succeed in that mission, although he did know that he had prepared them as thoroughly as troops could be prepared. There was a huge element of risk in this undertaking. Not to his personal safety, but to his reputation. Everyone is afraid of failure, but successful leaders do 2 things: they overcome their own fear of failing and they communicate this feeling of confidence to their followers. That’s what Patton succeeded in doing, and of course his army was successful in relieving Bastogne before it fell.

Patton’s forces didn’t accomplish all this from the shear force of his personality; they were well prepared for their tasks. Patton was relentless in his training and preparation and commanded superbly disciplined forces. He was given the nickname "Old Blood and Guts” by some in the army, one of the men he commanded commented on that nickname: "Yeah our blood and his guts!” His troops recognized the huge personal risks his demands made on them, but were honored to serve him. He wasn’t particularly concerned about his popularity because he knew that what his troops wanted more than anything else was success and he had proven over and over again that he could deliver that.

Patton also wasn’t concerned with what he could reasonably expect his troops to accomplish. He wasn’t afraid to set stretch objectives for the troops and then drive them until they succeeded. Demanding his troops disengage from the enemy, turn 90 degrees north and then make for Bastogne without rest was not something any sane person would be happy to do, but Patton demanded that his troops do it and they did. His leadership secrets:

  • Prepare the team for the job until they are the best they can possibly be
  • Communicate confidence in your leadership abilities to your team and stakeholders so that everyone believes in your ability to accomplish your goals.
  • Convey your confidence in your team’s ability to accomplish the goals you set for them.
  • Set "stretch” objectives for your team. In Patton’s case these objectives were pretty much dictated to him but he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations but his own and his team’s.
  • Demand results. Patton’s confidence was a two way street. Those that disappointed him had cause to regret it.

Besides being a superb military strategist and leader, Patton was also a fairly flamboyant man, and very quotable. I’ll leave you with a few of his more famous quotes, some of which you may already recognize without knowing their source.

"If a man has done his best, what else is there."

"I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom."

"There is a time to take counsel of your fears, and there is a time to never listen to your fear."

"You need to overcome the tug of people against you as you reach for high goals."

"We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way."
The tips and tricks described in this article are intended to help the project manager using the best practices promoted by the PMI. Project managers who are certified have already implemented those best practices. If you haven't been certified as a PMP® (Project Management Professional) by the PMI and would like to learn more about certification, visit the three O Project Solutions website at: http://threeo.ca/pmpcertifications29.php. three O Project Solutions also offers a downloadable software based training tool that has prepared project managers around the world to pass their certification exams. For more information about this product, AceIt, visit the three O website at: http://threeo.ca/aceit-features-c1288.php