Eisenhower is without a doubt one of the most interesting figures of the twentieth century. He was the Supreme Allied Commander during WOII and President of the United States. This most people know. But, in contrast, during the first 30 years of his career he basically achieved nothing noteworthy. Up to the age of 52 he served mostly as a staff officer, and never commanded more than a battalion in the field. That changed when he was made Commander of the Allied Forces in North Africa. By the time most people start thinking about retiring, his career and leadership finally took off.
His critics often said that he was a good organizer, but not really a leader of men. He made things look easy, so people concluded that he spent his time playing golf rather than leading the country. This is why his time in office is described as the “hidden-hand presidency”. On the outside it looked as though he was an amateur politician, without political instincts, but from the inside you can see he was an exceptional administrator that perfected the art of delegation.
So what can we learn from Eisenhower’s leadership style throughout the years?
Don’t Give Up
If you read about Eisenhower in the first 20-30 years of his career you can tell that he is anxious to be promoted, to be tested, and to do great deeds. But in the end it never happened. He was always passed over for promotion, he was mostly given staff assignments, and not the field command he craved. He wondered if being too good at organizing and instructing meant that his commanders would never give him a chance to fight on an actual battlefield.
But, he did not give up even though he sometimes questioned the state of career path. He kept up his work ethic, and continued giving the best he could. He did this because you never know when you’ll be called upon or when you’ll be really needed. Looking back later, he said about his army career that:
“My ambition in the army was to make everybody I worked for regretful when I was ordered to other duty.”
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
Some leaders like to be in charge of every small detail and like to make all the decisions. Not so much Eisenhower. He wanted to focus only on the most important points. Strategic decisions, policy directions, and matters of national importance. This is one of reasons why he made things looked easy: he focused on the big ticket items, and knew what was essential and what wasn’t. He used experts and informers, but always made sure that he had the last word and the last decision.
When he first entered the White House as the newly elected president, he was handed an envelope. He responded: “Never bring me a sealed envelope, that’s what I have staff for”. To Eisenhower this was a sign that the place was badly organized, because all letters should be screened for importance. Only those requiring his personal attention or of major importance should be brought to him. In the end, he looked for people who solved problems rather than create them. That way he could focus on the essential.
Another benefit of delegating is that it provides subordinates with the opportunity to take responsibility. With this burden of responsibility, subordinates were inspired and encouraged to do their absolute best. And if one of his subordinates did something wrong? Eisenhower backed them up completely and took the blame (were needed).
Demand team players
Commanding multiple armies from different countries and running a successful presidency means understanding the human element in performance. Eisenhower demanded team players and rejected exhibitionists. Especially when it came to the Allied command, he understood that with so many different cultures, nationalities, and interests it is essential to develop and nurture personal relationships. This meant that everyone should be honest, deal with other parties in all fairness, and never let nationalities or cultural differences get in the way of doing business. (This is a recurring theme in leadership styles.)
There’s the perfect anecdote that illustrates this. Eisenhower told his staff that it was essential to keep unity in the command, and that even though the Supreme Commander was American, no favors would be given and that everyone was supposed to take orders according to rank – without a distinction of nationality. It was okay to call someone a ‘son of a bitch,’ but as soon as an American called someone a ‘British son a of a bitch’ he would be send home immediately.
Understand Peak Efficiency
Nobody can work continuously without rest, and nobody can reach a level of constant efficiency and effectiveness. One of the marks of being a good leader – whether of yourself or of others – is knowing this and taking it into account in practice. Eisenhower did. Although he was often forced to work long hours, he understood that he was at his best when he had the chance to relax in the evenings (in Eisenhower’s case it often was golf or painting).
Be Quick to Give Credit & Take Blame (but draw a line)
Eisenhower understood that humans are constantly aiming to get a favourably notice from those above them. He also knew that as the Supreme Commander he had to suppress all of those tendencies; he could not be seen trying to win public favour, because that would damage his impartiality. On the other hand, as a leader it is important to give credit to others. The feelings that he suppressed in himself still needed to be nurtured in others.
His position was made all the more difficult because any failure on his part would be seen as a failure of the entire Allied operation. As the commander-in-chief that was his responsibility to bear; there was no other person to blame for his personal shortcomings, or from shortcomings of his subordinates. In the end all responsibility was deferred to him, which is why he was quick to take the blame for any and all problems of the operation – because that what a good leader does.
Although taking responsibility was one side, he could not, of course, condone failure. As Lucius Clay said about Eisenhower:
“He would give you a job, and when you completed it he would give you another. The more you did, the more he asked. And if you did not measure up, you were gone. He had no tolerance for failure.”
When his critics said that he was a better organizer than a leader, it doesn’t look like they took these qualities into account. Most of Eisenhower’s leadership qualities were “hidden”. And Eisenhower himself did not behave like an energetic, eccentric commander such as Patton or Montgomery. He was an organizer (here his critics are correct) rather than a field commander, but a great leader nonetheless. The type of person that could manage and organize four armies, a naval force, tactical air forces, and allied strategic bomber groups, made up from sixteen different countries and nationalities; isn’t that the sign of an excellent leader of men?
If you’re interested to learn more about Eisenhower and his leadership style, the biography Eisenhower In War and Peace is highly recommended!
Photo credit: Vladislav Klapin (Unsplash)