“The graveyards are full indispensable people.”

See Note 1*


This week’s topic is indispensability; and some of its effects on project managers.

As I see it there are two types of indispensability:

Type 1: Where you work to become indispensable through deliberately withholding information and creating a mystic about your talents and skills.

Type 2: Where you become indispensable in the eyes of others due to your obvious skills and knowledge.

The first can be harmful to your project and organization and the second can be harmful to the individual.

The First Scottish War of Independence and lessons on indispensability.

The Scottish war of independence spanned the period from 1296 to 1328 and involved four kings. I will be revisiting this topic in a later blog so will limit this account to the kings and their varying degrees if indispensability.

The four kings – in order of reign – were:

  • Edward I (King of England 1272 – 1307)
  • John I (de Balliol) (King of Scots 1292 – 1296)
  • Robert I (The Bruce) (King of Scots 1306 – 1329)
  • Edward II (King of England 1307 -1327)

Monarchs by their very nature are indispensable; or at least the institution can appear so, and there is a natural tendency for them to develop a cult of indispensability. (The divine right of kings) We see similar patterns of behavior in strong men and dictators.

How did this playout during our period?

Edward I

Edward I – the first of our kings – was a strong and clever man. He was also reputed to have had an excellent legal mind.  He was credited with reforming the legal system, resulting in greater fairness. However, he was not above twisting to law to meet his own ends.

Much of his reign was spent at war. Five years after his coronation he commenced his conquest of Wales.

For centuries English kings had been encroaching on the Welsh principality, but between 1277 and 1283 Edward completed its subjugation.

The following years saw the introduction of English law and administration. A massive castle building program was undertaken to impose these changes on the Welsh.

Edward had ambitions of a united Britain, under his rule, but for the moment relations with his brother-in-law’s kingdom of Scotland were relatively tranquil. Indeed, due to intermarriage and patronage both kingdoms were governed by a Norman aristocracy, many of whom had land holdings in both kingdoms.

So! For now, peace reigned.


Alexander III King of Scots died in a riding accident, leaving only an infant granddaughter (Margaret) as heir.

Scotland was on the brink of civil war. With the Bruce family keen to press their claim to the throne, a counsel of Scottish nobles asked Edward, “friend of Scotland”, to intercede.  Margaret was the daughter of the king of Norway and Alexander’s daughter Margaret. Edward arranged for Margaret to travel to Scotland when she was older, and for her to marry his son Edward. Scotland lapsed into normalcy, governed by a council of Guardians.

Unfortunately, Margaret died on her way to Scotland in 1290 and Scotland was again plunged into chaos.

Once more Edward was asked to help and he agreed to adjudicate the cases of around a dozen claimants to the throne. He also took advantage of his position to secure oaths from the Scottish lords, and agreement to his overlord ship.

Only two of the claimants had a strong case, Robert de Bruce, (Grandfather of the future king), and John de Balliol. Edward finally judged in favour of John who was duly crowned King of Scots. (1292) The Bruces were less than happy and would vacillate between support for Scotland and support for England, until Robert I seized the throne in 1306.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Edward I and John I

Almost immediately Edward began overturning John’s decisions, hearing appeals against his rulings, and generally interfering in the running of the Kingdom. Finally, John formed a pact with France, (My enemy’s enemy is my friend) which led to war with England, in 1296. Scotland was poorly led and totally inexperienced in war and was rapidly defeated by Edwards veterans.

John was forced to abdicate, led into captivity, and would play no direct role in future events. His short reign was over almost before it began.

With his lightning victory Edward assumed that like Wales, subjugation was complete and moved rapidly to direct English rule.

The next decade saw almost continual unrest in Scotland, with rebellions breaking out on a regular basis. The most famous being that of William Wallace, of “Braveheart” fame.

The general pattern of the period:

  • A Scottish revolt gaining momentum.
  • Edward losing patience with his administrators.
  • Edward rushing north and crushing the rebellion.
  • Each time seeming to be the final victory.

But Scotland was a larger nation than Wales and, England lacked the resources to totally subdue her.

Robert I

By 1306 Edward finally felt that he had succeeded, but things suddenly changed when Robert murdered his main Scottish rival John Comyn and seized the Scottish throne.

Within months Robert’s reign was in tatters, twice defeated and reduced to an outlaw. No one knows where he was during that winter of 1306, but in early 1307 he exploded on the scene with a string of minor victories in south west Scotland.

Despite being seriously ill Edward once again saddled-up and headed north to crush the rebellion. But it was not to be, Edward died on the way north, to be succeed by his son Edward II.

Robert I and Edward II

The death of Edward I brought a change in the fortunes of the Scottish cause.

Edward II, immediately returned to England, and would not turn his attentions to Scotland again for several years, by then the impetus had swung in favour of the Scottish cause, which would never again sink to the 1306 level.

Freed from English interference Robert fought a short and savage civil war destroying his Scottish enemies and recovering control of much of Scotland.

By 1314 he was in control of all of Scotland save Lothian, and Edward finally launched a major invasion.

This proved to be a disaster and the English army was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Despite the magnitude of the defeat Edward still refused to acknowledge Scottish independence.

Robert moved to the offensive, intensifying large-scale raids into northern England with the aim of gaining funds and pressuring Edward to recognize Scotland’s claims.

In parallel Scotland was waging an international political campaign to gain support and recognition for Scotland’s cause.

Edward was not only unsuccessful in Scotland but had major domestic political and financial problems and was exceedingly unpopular.

This came to a head in 1327 when he was deposed by his wife and her lover replacing him with his son Edward III.

Edward III unsuccessfully campaigned in northern England against the Scottish army. Unable to prevail he signed the treaty of Edinburgh in 1328. The treaty recognized a free and independent Scotland. The long war was over – for now.

By 1329 Robert was dead succeeded by his infant son David, and by 1332 all his lieutenants were dead.

Scotland would never again achieve the level of dominance of the Bruce era.

Monarch Indispensability Score Card

Edward I

With him it was all its about me! He does not seem to have been interested in developing subordinates or his son. He was an; “if you want it done right, do it yourself”, kind of person”. Clearly a Type 1

John I

John was elevated beyond his level of competence, and on the face of it he was not in any way indispensable. However, in the decade between his overthrow and Robert’s coup, all Scottish resistance groups nominally acted in his name. He was not indispensable as an individual but the institution which he represented was. Possibly a Type 2, by default.

Robert I

Unlike Edward I, Robert appeared to be much more willing to trust his subordinates to undertake independent commands. Whether he developed them or was just lucky we can never know. Of the four he had by far the best team, which by the later stages of the war was totally dominant. Robert does not appear to have been a Type 1 indispensable, but to be fair, you cannot go chasing a crown without at least some kind if indispensability complex. One of Scotland’s most successful monarchs he did fail to leave his heir an “A” team. Was this just bad luck or a lack of succession planning? There were many bad years ahead; But he did seem to do just enough. His descendants would sit on the Scottish, and later, British throne for nearly four hundred years. I am going to give Robert a partial pass – just.

Edward II

Unlike his father, Edward II was an incompetent ruler, but it does not seem to have affected his feelings of indispensability, and right to rule. He was finally overthrown but despite the incompetence it took twenty years, indicating strong institutional indispensability, and possibly a lack of a legitimate alternative. Edward II was a type 1 but without the ability of his father.


What can we take from this as project managers?

Type 1 Indispensable


  • Work to spread the knowledge or skill. (not always easy with a type 1, especially if they are in a position of authority: be creative)
  • Include in your risk management plan. (What if they leave, are sick, or over committed?)
  • If there is an alternative but slightly less skilled individual pick them.
  • Create a culture of learning and sharing.

Last week we looked at football managers, specifically Sir Alex Ferguson, who is arguably the greatest of all time.

He was indispensable: 38 trophies in 26 years with Manchester United, and 10 trophies in the previous 8 years with Aberdeen, including a European triumph over the legendary Real Madrid.

Post Ferguson both Aberdeen and Manchester United have failed to come close to the levels of performance of the Ferguson eras. (Reversion to mean).

I am sure that the fans do not regret having an indispensable manager.

However, this was not a normal distribution.

In business it makes much better sense to build a team of good players rather than relying on one or two indispensable ones.

In his book “Chasing Stars the Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance” Boris Groysberg, cautions against chasing stars.


  • Does your company have institutional indispensability’s?
    • Are they legitimate? (Like the monarchy in medieval Europe)
    • If not
      • Can you influence change?
      • Are they a major impediment, or just an inconvenience to executing your project?
  • If you cannot influence change and they are a major impediment, you may want to consider a career move.
    • Lack of change can result in good companies losing to disruptors
    • As we saw with Sir Alex, indispensability eventually runs out.

Type 2 Indispensability

  • Do you always use the same indispensable person for all your projects?
    • See risk management above
    • Are you limiting that individual’s potential, by restricting their scope of work? (They may be the expert on the old stuff and want to move to newer technology)
    • Are you creating a bottleneck?
    • Are you storing up problems for the future?

Remember!  “indispensability” is a RISK.

“The graveyards are full indispensable people.”

In the next post we will be looking at the Berlin Airlift.

One of the key characters was General Lucius Clay.

Clay was assigned an Engineering posting and missed out on combat in WWI.

By the time of WWII, he was such an accomplished logistician and political operator, that despite repeated requests for a combat posting, it never came.

At the end of the war he was appointed Military Governor of Occupied Germany, and had the Berlin Airlift not occurred, he would probably be little remembered today.

Before you say, well he was indispensable and it worked out, remember Survivor Bias.

Note 1*    The quotation is often credited to de Gaulle but does appear to have earlier references. If you are interested, check out the “Quote Investigator” site. Also, the quote in different forms uses men and people, I have gone with the one more suitable to our time.   


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rashid N. Kapadia

    Another engaging and “Unique-perspective” article Jim. Great work! Keep them coming.

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