Eisenhower on Leadership

Ike's Enduring Lessons in Total Victory Management
By Alan Axelrod


Copyright © 2006 Alan Axelrod
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7879-8238-6

Chapter One


Ike and America Enter the War

Although the United States was still at peace, World War II was under way in Europe when Eisenhower returned to the United States after long service as Douglas MacArthur's right-hand man in the Philippines. In January 1940, he was appointed both regimental executive officer and commander of the First Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry, Third Division, at Fort Lewis, Washington. In March 1941, he was promoted to full colonel and in June transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as chief of staff of the Third Army. Promoted yet again, to the rank of temporary brigadier general, he became one of the chief planners of the Louisiana Maneuvers, which took place in September 1941. Ike's role in this vast and crucial exercise drew the attention of George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, and when Pearl Harbor thrust the nation into the war on December 7, 1941, Marshall summoned Ike to the War Department in Washington, D.C., and named him assistant chief of the Army War Plans Division, a post in which he served midway through June 1942, having been jumped in rank, as of March 1942, to major general.

Ike's work in the War Department during the dismal, desperate, and chaotic early months of America's involvement in the war consisted of formulating strategies for national military survival as well as for an eventual counteroffensive intended to convert defeat into victory. Assigned to prepare plans for an Allied invasion of Europe, he then had to switch to planning for the invasion of North Africa instead, because President Roosevelt agreed with Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, that the best way to approach a counteroffensive in Europe was via the Mediterranean, starting with the conquest of North Africa.

In May 1942, Marshall sent Ike to London to work on strategy and policy for joint defense, and on June 15, 1942, Marshall jumped him over 366 more senior officers to become commander of all U.S. troops in the European theater of operations (which included North Africa). After promotion to temporary lieutenant general in July 1942, Eisenhower was named to command Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa.

Launched on November 8, 1942, Operation Torch was the first major Allied offensive of the war. Eisenhower remarked that his job, leading a diverse and often disputatious Anglo-American high command, was like "trying to arrange the blankets smoothly over several prima donnas in the same bed."

From these first, monumentally difficult phases of his World War II career emerged a leadership philosophy that is reflected in passages of Eisenhower's extraordinary postwar memoir, Crusade in Europe, and found within the mountains of secret cables, dispatches, official memoranda, diary notations, and personal letters he wrote from the beginning of 1940 to November 1942.

* * *

Lesson 1 Compromise and Management

For those on staff work the days became ceaseless rounds of planning, directing, inspecting; compromising what had been commanded with what could be done.

-Crusade in Europe

The U.S. Army entered its first two offshore wars wholly unprepared. In 1898, it fought the Spanish-American War with a tiny regular army force, supplemented by militia and volunteers, and although valiant in combat, the army fell all over itself in the clumsily improvised process of shipping out to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I with a professional full-time army of just 133,000 officers and men, vastly smaller than all but the smallest armies of the smallest nations involved in the war. It is a myth that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, caught the United States similarly unprepared. Ever since Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, President Roosevelt had begun preparing the nation for war, first by gearing up production of materiel and increasing military budgets, then, on September 16, 1940, by signing the Selective Service Act, the first peacetime military draft in American history.

In January 1940, Ike returned to the United States from a long assignment in the Philippines on the staff of Douglas MacArthur. He was tasked with training and commanding troops at Fort Lewis, Washington. The draft had not yet commenced, and neither had the buildup of equipment and weapons. Ike, like other field-grade officers at this point in time, was faced with what seemed the certainty of war and the job of preparing a woefully inadequate number of underequipped troops to fight it. This was hardly a comfortable position, but, as it turned out, it provided extraordinarily valuable experience in executing the key leadership and management task of "compromising what had been commanded with what could be done."

Even at the height of the campaign in Europe, as the Allies advanced into Germany and Eisenhower commanded millions, he would find that this cardinal rule still applied. For in war, there are never enough men, never enough equipment or supplies, and what can actually be done has always to be compromised with what is commanded.

What is true of war is true as well of every complex, high-stakes enterprise. There is always the necessity of compromise. That is the very essence and art of management: a balancing of expectations and desires against resources and results. Economists call it working within the principle of scarcity. Military leaders, if they're as good as Eisenhower was, call it reality, and they are grateful for having been trained to deal with it.

* * *

Lesson 2 Create Satisfaction

I determined that my answer should be short, emphatic, and based on reasoning in which I honestly believed.

-Crusade in Europe

Just days after Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, summoned Ike Eisenhower to the War Department in Washington. After briefing Ike for twenty minutes on the disasters of the Pacific theater, describing what seemed at the moment a situation overwhelming in its hopelessness, Marshall stopped, then asked Eisenhower a single question: "What should be our general line of action?"

Struggling to maintain a poker face, Ike replied, "Give me a few hours." "All right," Marshall said and, with that, dismissed Eisenhower.

Ike took the problem back to the desk that had been assigned him in the War Department's Operations Division. His first thought was, "[I]f I were to be of any service to General Marshall in the War Department, I would have to earn his confidence." This meant, he reasoned, that "the logic of this, my first answer, would have to be unimpeachable, and the answer would have to be prompt." With that, a "curious echo from long ago came to my aid."

Ike recalled something his beloved mentor, Major General Fox Conner, had said to him shortly after World War I. It was that another war was inevitable and, when the United States got into that war, it would do so with allies. "Systems of single command will have to be worked out," Conner had said to Eisenhower. "We must insist on individual and single responsibility-leaders will have to learn how to overcome nationalistic considerations in the conduct of campaigns. One man who can do it is Marshall-he is close to being a genius."

The memory of this discussion prompted Ike to conclude that whatever answer he gave to Marshall "should be short, emphatic, and based on reasoning in which I honestly believed." Why? "No oratory, plausible argument, or glittering generality would impress anyone entitled to be labeled genius by Fox Conner."

Before even tackling the daunting problem Marshall had posed, Ike thought about the true significance of the question-that it was as much Marshall's way of testing him as it was a question about the conduct of the war-and he thought about what kind of answer would satisfy Marshall-what product would satisfy this particular customer. He summoned up the most important fact he knew about Marshall: that a man Eisenhower deeply admired regarded Marshall as very nearly a genius. To pass the test Marshall had posed, Ike would have to earn the chief's confidence. Because Marshall was a genius (or very nearly so), Ike would have to earn his confidence with a short and thoroughly reasoned answer.

What he came up with was a plan to do whatever was possible, little as that might at the moment be, lest the endangered Allies in the theater give up hope and write off not only themselves but also the U.S. military: "They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment."

"I agree with you," Marshall said when Eisenhower presented his report to him. "Do your best to save them."

George Marshall was famous for his laconic manner. A man of very few words, he was not given to praise. But in this exchange-a question posing the impossible and eliciting a brief, impeccably reasoned answer proposing the possible-was born the confidence that would soon move Marshall to appoint Eisenhower supreme commander of U.S. forces in North Africa and Europe and, later, motivate his nomination of Ike as commander of the Normandy invasion and supreme commander of all Allied forces in Europe.

The right answer is the one that satisfies all the needs of the person who asks the question.

* * *

Lesson 3

The Sins of Leadership (According to General Marshall)

[H]e ... gave clear indication of the types of men who in his opinion were unsuited for high position.

-Crusade in Europe

During his time in the War Department, Ike worked directly for George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, and he dedicated himself to learning all he could from Marshall, paying particular attention to what his boss considered the cardinal sins of poor leaders.

Marshall could not tolerate "any effort to 'pass the buck,' especially to him." Ike often heard him say that he could get "a thousand men to do detailed work but too many were useless in responsible posts because they left to him the necessity of making every decision."

Although Marshall wanted "his principal assistants [to] think and act on their own conclusions within their own spheres of responsibility," he had "nothing but scorn" for the micromanager. If you "worked yourself to tatters on minor details," you could have "no ability to handle the more vital issues."

Marshall could not abide the "truculent personality-the man who confused firmness and strength with bad manners and deliberate discourtesy."

Marshall avoided those with "too great a love of the limelight."

He was "irritated" by those "who were too stupid to see that leadership in conference, even with subordinates, is as important as on the battlefield."

He "could not stand the pessimist-the individual who was always painting difficulties in the darkest colors." Marshall tried to avoid delegating responsibility to pessimists and "would never assign an officer to a responsible position unless he believed that the man was an enthusiastic supporter of the particular project and confident of its outcome."

* * *

Lesson 4 Refuse to Consider Failure

[General] Marshall's ... utter refusal to entertain any thought of failure infused the whole War Department with energy and confidence.

-Crusade in Europe

Some leaders consider themselves realists because they dare to face the possibility of failure. Following the example of George C. Marshall, however, Ike Eisenhower simply refused to entertain any thought of failure. This was not an exercise in self-delusion, but a means of preparing himself and his command for total victory. Factor out the thought of failure, and you are left with energy and confidence.

As a student of history (thanks to the tutelage of Major General Fox Conner), Eisenhower must have read the story of how Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of the Aztec empire, arrived in the New World, then bored holes in the hulls of his ships (attributing the damage to shipworm) so that he and his men could entertain no notion of returning home anytime soon-that is, they could afford no thought of failure. As a leadership tactic, banishing the very option of failure worked well for Cortés, just as it would serve Ike Eisenhower as he commanded the greatest alliance in the greatest struggle the world had ever seen.

* * *

Lesson 5 Reduce and Clarify

It is a characteristic of military problems that they yield to nothing but harsh reality; things must be reduced to elemental simplicity and answers must be clear, almost obvious.

-Crusade in Europe

World War II was all about big numbers and staggeringly complex situations perpetually obscured by the fog of war. At no time was the situation more overwhelming to the Allies than it was early in the war, when Germany (and, in the Pacific, Japan) was a juggernaut and everything the Allies needed was in critically short supply. Eisenhower came into his job at the Operations Division with the conviction that it did no good to gape at the vastness and confusion of it all. "It profited nothing to wail about unpreparedness," he observed. Instead, the first task was to drill down to "harsh reality," to reduce everything to "elemental simplicity," much as one might approach a dauntingly complicated mathematical equation. Find the core, simplify the problem by identifying its elements, then formulate the answers to these.

Ike accepted the fact that many problems were complex, but he rejected the proposition that the answers to them had to be commensurately complex. If they truly addressed the elements of even the most complex problems, the right answers were almost always the simplest and most obvious. The first job of problem solving in a position of leadership is to identify the elemental reality of the situation. How do you tell when you've reached it? It looks, sounds, and feels harsher than anything swirling about and surrounding it.

* * *

Lesson 6 Do the Hard Work

I have been here about three weeks and this noon I had my first luncheon outside of the office. Usually it is a hot-dog sandwich and a glass of milk.

-Letter to LeRoy Lutes, December 31, 1941

To lead, Ike Eisenhower quickly discovered, is to work. After about three weeks in the War Department in Washington, he wrote to Brigadier General LeRoy Lutes, a friend who had been summoned to an assignment in the department. Eisenhower described his work routine "just to give you an inkling as to the kind of mad house you are getting into." Observing that it "is now eight o'clock New Year's Eve," Ike explained that he had a "couple hours' work ahead of me, and tomorrow will be no different from today."

Lutes's wife was in a hospital in California. "The situation with respect to your wife is a most distressing one," Ike sympathized. "I am as sorry as I can be and even more sorry that I can offer you no constructive suggestion in your problem."

Such is war; such is leadership. It entails work, and it entails sacrifice. "This letter does not sound too encouraging but it is a bald statement of fact." To commit to the work is perhaps the very first decision a leader has to make. The only way to make that decision is to base it on a "bald statement of fact," regardless of how little comfort the facts may offer.

* * *

Lesson 7 Capture All Decisions

[T]he staff was able to translate every decision and agreement into appropriate action and to preserve such records as were necessary. -Crusade in Europe


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