Monday, August 16, 2004

Learning from Dwight D. Eisenhower

Learning from Dwight D. Eisenhower

Just snagged a few days’ vacation. My ideal time away involves little schedule and much reading. It was great to finish a wonderful book, Eisenhower; A Soldier's Life by Carlo D’Este. Several key observations:

  • Leadership is a fuzzy task. An overriding theme of the book was that Eisenhower had as major of a task managing the Allied commanders, their egos, their ambitions, as he did addressing the central military elements of defeating Nazi Germany. His military training was constantly being affected by the human and political questions; such as “Who will be the first to cross the Rhine?”—an ongoing battle, eventually won by American George Patton over British Field Marshall Montgomery.
  • Act only on well-grounded assessments. In the pressure of war, Eisenhower made excellent decisions when he had strong evidence to support his opinions. Similarly, he made some very poor decisions when he acted on unsubstantiated feelings.
  • Socratic Method. In 1922-24, Dwight Eisenhower was in a boring posting in Panama. Boring only in name, as he was under Gen Fox Conner. Gen Conner used the The Socratic Method to fill the time in teaching the young Eisenhower about military strategy and planning. Fox’s probing questions forced his student to think harder and understand better than he ever did at West Point. Many historians view this three-year hitch as the foundation of the American victory in World War II.
  • View any assignment as good preparation. In the mid 1930s, Eisenhower was assigned to go to France and locate all the American military cemeteries from WW I. Not an exciting task. Yet, despite his disappointment at not having a more strategic task, he took to it with energy, criss-crossing northern France by car and horse. In so doing, he gained direct knowledge of the geography he would cross again ten years later.
  • Know whom you can count on. Eisenhower was viewed by many as not the best person for the job of supreme commander, but rather as the one who offended the least number of key players, Churchill and Roosevelt the chief among them. As he progressed in his command, he found this birth in compromise left him with a precious handful of true compatriots. He leaned on them and their support was key to winning the war.
  • Be clear on your objective. The number of tugs and pulls on Eisenhower were colossal, at a level I never imagined. The daily grind was telling; the book speaks of the incredible weariness of the man as the war ground on and the Allies moved towards Berlin. His great strength was absolute clarity of objective.
  • Constraints. Multiple stories showed (again) the principle of understanding constraints. Most notable was the repeated constraint imposed by the availability (or lack thereof) of enough small landing craft, or LSTs. Indeed, it was the number of LSTs available which governed the scope of the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944. In preparations for D-Day, Winston Churchill grasped this principle when he said “the destinies of two great empires seemed to be tied up in some blasted things called LSTs.”

The applications for each of us are obvious.

I hope this is helpful.

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