D-Day: Ike, as ‘CEO,’ Had It Right

“Plans are worthless—but planning is everything.”  –Dwight Eisenhower (1957)

Dwight Eisenhower as the consummate CEO? I’ve been reflecting on that lately, as we commemorate another anniversary of D-Day.

It was 71 years ago today—on June 6, 1944—that Eisenhower launched the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe, which remains the largest seaborne invasion in history. Nearly 5,600 ships, along with 160,000 troops and 10,000 planes, made their way across the English Channel to occupied France.

Led by General Eisenhower, the Allies had been preparing for this momentous day for more than a year: logistics, reconnaissance, training, strategic deceptions. Yet more than a decade later, looking back at all those efforts, Eisenhower remarked: “Plans are worthless—but planning is everything.”

It remains a brilliant observation—astute about not only epic conflicts, but also managing a company and managing one’s life. However, because plans are so often worthless, as Eisenhower says, many leaders neglect planning. Marketplaces are becoming increasingly dynamic, so most plans feel foolish. Many leaders I work with therefore choose to abandon the process of planning as well.

On D-Day itself, the plans didn’t always work out. Rough seas meant vessels didn’t hit the beach on time. Bombers missed  targets. Only a small percentage of Allied paratroopers landed accurately. German gun batteries weren’t where they were thought to be.

Even so, D-Day succeeded. That’s because Eisenhower’s planning—as opposed to his plan—was so good. Leadership had anticipated complications on the ground. Troops were prepared to make on-the-fly modifications and did so within hours of making the beaches. By summer’s end, Eisenhower and the Allies had liberated Paris; the following spring, Berlin fell and the war was won.

I’ve long thought about the Battle of Normandy. My wife and I took each of our children, when they were in their teens, to the memorials in western France so that they might feel the reverence I feel each time I view the acres of graves of the young men who gave their lives that freedom would endure. Those were important trips for me, as they were for my children.

But, for me, the other important message of D-Day was Eisenhower’s concrete observation. You can’t manage an invasion or a business or a life without going through the disciplined process of planning. It would be akin to entering battle without evaluating contingencies like weather or disruptions in supply lines. Nonetheless, some of my best students—and even some executives with whom I’ve worked—resist planning.

After all, planning takes time. And what emerges from it is necessarily laden with uncertainties. Faced with an array of course-altering potentials in unpredictable markets, many talented, self-assured individuals shun planning. A common axiom in Silicon Valley is that any five-year plan is an oxymoron, so don’t be a moron in wasting time coming up with one. Instead, there are entrepreneurs who prefer just to jump in; surely, goes the belief, they’ll be able to rely on their adaptive abilities to make it to the other shore. The Valley prizes its “fail-fast” approach and embrace of experimentation, so why not just skip the planning phase altogether?

It sounds reasonable enough. And for many, this M.O. may work, at least for a while. When it does, entrepreneurs develop a faith in serendipity that trumps the skepticism that typically governs the rest of their business affairs. But I counsel those entrepreneurs—and the MBA students who aspire to be like them—to plan anyway. I press them to state intentions and to share them with others.

But for all the planning, the projects have to be subject to continual adjustment and even abandonment when a better idea comes along or when the paratroopers miss their target. Just as budgets need updates, so, too, projects require revisions. That entire process of planning and re-planning, rather than some mere document called a plan, is what helps to produce triumph—on the battlefield and in business.

Let me offer a thought about one’s larger life as well. It’s invariably worth taking the time to be intentional. A life well lived sometimes requires going against the current, swimming upstream. But without planning, it’s too easy simply to drift along with the current.

On this annual remembrance of D-Day, I take time to reflect and to review not just my plans, but especially my planning.

By Joel Peterson