Willpower – The Essential Project Leadership Discipline


Michael O’Brochta, ACP, PMP

President, Zozer Inc.

Maryland, USA

Project management is about applying common sense with uncommon discipline. Hard skills such as planning can be learned, and soft skills such as team building can be practiced; however, it is only through the essential leadership element of willpower that either of these two basic skill sets can produce project success. Breakthrough research now reveals that willpower can be learned and strengthened.

This is a how-to paper. It describes the essential role willpower plays in project success, presents recent groundbreaking research, indicating that willpower can be strengthened, and provides a list of actions a project manager can take to build their willpower. Through a dramatic story from the author’s recent climb of another of the world’s tallest mountains, the case is made that willpower is key to project success.

A central theme is that project managers can speed their journey to project excellence by focusing on the essential leadership discipline of willpower. The author, who has presented papers every year for the past decade at PMI Global Congresses, draws upon his years of experience at the CIA and elsewhere to provide his assessment of what it takes to succeed.


The Problem

The problem is about project success and how to achieve it. This subject is certainly one about which much has been written. Project managers in the Information Technology industry have benefited for years from the Chaos Reports periodically published by the Standish Group. Those publications have chronicled a rather dismal project success rate that has hovered at about one-third; issues with user involvement and with executive support have consistently been identified as the leading causes (Levinson, 2009). Other research firms paint pictures just about as bleak: Forrester Research reports a 47% success rate, and the Economist Intelligence Unity reports a 56% success rate (Krigsman, 2012). The reasons these research firms attribute to the low success rates include unrealistic and mismatched expectations. In another set of studies, published by McKinsey Quarterly, we find strong evidence that project size matters; large projects not only fail more often, they deliver fewer results (McDonald, 2012).

My own experience during the career that I spent managing projects at the Central Intelligence Agency did not necessarily conflict with any of these reasons for projects that fail to achieve success; however, I did come to the understanding that requirements and planning were primary contributors to successful projects. In fact, my mantra became “proper prior planning prevents particularly poor performance” and “a requirement well understood is a requirement half solved.” Our project life cycle even included specific tasks, milestones, and deliverables to insure adequate attention was paid to planning and requirements (O’Brochta, 2001).


To read entire paper (click here)

About the Author

Michael-O’Brochtaflag-usaMichael O’Brochta, ACP, PMP

Michael O’Brochta, who has managed hundreds of projects during the past thirty years, is also an experienced line manager, author, lecturer, trainer and consultant. He holds a master’s degree in project management, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and is certified as a an ACP and a PMP. As Zozer Inc. President, he is helping organizations raise their level of project management performance. As senior project manager at the Central Intelligence Agency, he led the project management and systems engineering training and certification program to mature practices agency-wide. Mr. O’Brochta’s other recent work includes leading the development of standards and courses for the new U.S. Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers. He serves at the PMI corporate level on the Ethics Member Advisory Group where he led the development of an ethical decision-making framework that was released PMI-wide, and at the chapter level where he built and led the international PMIWDC Chapter-to-Chapter program; he is a graduate of the Leadership Institute Mater Class. Mr. O’Brochta has written / presented papers at every PMI North American Global Congress during the past decade as well as at many international and regional conferences. Topics that he is currently passionate about include how to get executives to act for project success and great project managers. Since his recent climb of another of the world’s seven summits, he has been exploring the relationship between project management and mountain climbing.  He can be contacted at [email protected].