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Leadership Without Presumption: Lessons From Eisenhower

Intellectuals scoffed at Eisenhower during his time in office. Now his leadership style seems like genius.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers

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During World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower took a cruise around the Isle of Capri. On seeing a large villa, he asked about it and learned that it was to be his quarters. He inquired about the neighboring villa as well, and learned that it would soon belong to Army Air Force General Carl Spaatz.

“Damn it,” Eisenhower said, “That’s not my villa and that’s not General Spaatz’s villa! None of these will belong to any general as long as I’m boss around here. This is supposed to be a center--for combat men--not a playground for the brass.”

Eisenhower was never one for setting himself apart. Raised on a farm in Kansas, Eisenhower kept set times for meals and bible study. After high school he went to West Point and was an average student who enjoyed sports. Sadly, he didn’t make the baseball team. “Not making the baseball team at West Point,” Eisenhower later said, “was one of the greatest disappointments of my life, maybe my greatest.”

During the war years, Eisenhower earned his five stars because he proved to be a diligent, effective leader who could think strategically. After the war, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University and later, the 34th President of the United States. But Eisenhower didn’t achieve his leadership successes because he was particularly charismatic or because he was a brilliant orator with sweeping visions. He was a leader because he was adept at maneuvering within political circles. He preferred to move agendas forward and get things done rather than advance his own ego.

Leaders can learn from Eisenhower’s humility in five key ways:

1. Don’t take yourself seriously

Eisenhower said, “Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” His first priority was getting the job done, and he knew that humor helped. He said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”

Leaders need to be serious and focused when pushing agendas, but they must have a sense of humor throughout the process. Humor helps deal with the inevitable roadblocks.

2. A leader doesn’t simply order people around

Eisenhower believed that leadership didn’t come from barking orders or mandating action. He said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” At the core of this sentiment is the idea that leadership isn’t about simply pushing your own ideas. It’s about a conversation that demands respect and listening--from both sides.

“Leadership,” Eisenhower said “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Again, Eisenhower stresses that getting people to move is a subtle process that involves dialogue and interaction. It’s not about defining what you as a leader want, but discovering what everyone wants and fighting for that.

Leaders must appreciate that leadership is about continually searching for common needs and involves conversation, both listening and talking.

3. Know that coalitions are vital

During WWII, Eisenhower said, “In a war such as this, when high command invariably involves a president, a prime minister, six chiefs of staff, and a horde of lesser ‘planners,’ there has got to be a lot of patience--no one person can be a Napoleon or a Caesar.” Eisenhower knew the value of patience, and that coalitions and political sway were necessary to accomplishing the mission.

Getting things done within a coalition army was a slow process, and Eisenhower relied on patience and humility. Eisenhower didn’t storm around and demand that everything be done his way. He knew he had to work within a system and lead from within it.

There are very few Napoleons or Caesars in modern organizations. Leaders need to work with others and build coalitions if they want to get things done. They can’t simply sit back, mandate, and expect that their desires will be fulfilled.

4. There are smarter people out there

Eisenhower had the guts to admit he didn’t know everything. It made him humble and it’s why he became a successful leader. In his book, At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends, he advises, “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.”

It’s shopworn advice, but it’s something many leaders forget in the day-to-day. Leaders need to stop protecting their egos and learn from whomever they can.

5. A pat on the back is all you need

Reflecting on his leadership style, Eisenhower remarked,  “I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by my physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from the general to private with a smile, a pat on the back and definite interest in his problems.”

Eisenhower boosted morale not with inspirational speeches, but with simple, honest, straightforward conversations. Instead of handing out trophies, he gave his soldiers encouraging pats on the back. It was a humble, direct way of reaching out, and it made him a favorite of the troops.

Leaders don’t need to light fireworks to reward hard work and dedication. Honest, meaningful conversation and the occasional pat on the back are sometimes enough to keep people motivated and energized.

6. Be cheerful

Eisenhower made it his business to be a positive, cheery, and upbeat. He knew optimism, like pessimism, was contagious. By remaining positive and trying to “reflect the cheerful certainty of victory” he believed he could boost individual and company morale.

Leaders shouldn’t glower, whine, complain, or pout. They must demonstrate that they are excited about the larger organizational mission and work to cultivate a sense of optimism. Dour behavior from on high has the potential to incite organizational malaise that can spread like wildfire. Be like Ike and make sure your mannerisms and speech reflect a positive attitude.

Oddly, intellectuals and academics across America sneered at Eisenhower while he was president. They didn’t respect his easy, simple ways and thought he didn’t have the visionary chops for such a high office. A common insult directed at Eisenhower’s intellect was, “He can't read the briefing papers because his lips are chapped.''

Today, Eisenhower’s consistent, incremental progress and drive to get things done seems less like the work of a simple minded military man and more like the work of political genius. Eisenhower was a good leader because he knew how to be political and get things done while remaining humble and, more importantly, human.

IMAGE: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: Jun 26, 2013

SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.
@samuelbacharach




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