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Dwight Eisenhower: Portrait of a Collaborative Leader

Originally published in the November/December 2004 edition of the Virginia Review

On Dec. 12, 1941, five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall ordered General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower to move from San Antonio to Washington DC to help lead the nation’s War Plans Division. When they met, Marshall immediately explained America’s weak military situation and asked him for a plan.

Ike thought for a few hours, brought Marshall his recom—mendations, and Marshall agreed with every one of them. Then (as Ike recalled years later), Marshall leaned forward and said “Eisenhower, the department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”

Neither man knew at the time how well Ike would live up to that requirement. Ike had never seen combat, but he was a very capable staff officer, having served under generals like John Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. By the time he was named Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, heading up Operation Overlord (the D—Day invasion), Ike had established himself as an extraordinarily capable leader. In working with a coalition of the British, French, Canadians and Americans, he was dealing with some of the largest egos in the world: General George S. Patton, senior British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, French General Charles De Gaulle, as well as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was an extraordinary challenge, one he mastered because of his leadership style.

Those who served with Ike and people who studied his performance describe him this way:

  • He believed that victory would come through coordination of the various armies and leaders, not because of individual star performances;
  • He had his officers spend considerable time together to forge the bonds necessary to act like a team. One example: he moved his headquarters out of London to a quiet part of the country, because he wanted his own staff to live together “like a football team” so they could think and plan as one, with no distraction;
  • When it came to disagreements, he wanted them aired openly and directly. The participants had to work out their differences using one overriding criterion: what will help achieve the military goal, while furthering Allied unity?
  • Ike was modest. He had a good ego but kept it in check. One example: after a huge Allied victory over the Axis powers in Tunisia in May, 1943, he spoke to the press and heaped praise on the officers who led the effort. He didn’t mention his own role (and the Allied press hardly mentioned him in their stories); and
  • He refused to be treated like royalty. When on a cruise around an Italian island, he learned his staff had taken over some beautiful large villas for Ike and his senior aides. He would have nothing of it, protesting that “this [island] is supposed to be a rest center for combat men, not a playground for the brass!”

The one word that virtually all of Ike’s associates used to describe him was “trust.” President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and Allied soldiers all trusted him. Mont—gomery, who often made clear that he thought his own military abilities superior to Ike’s, once said that “Š you trust him at once. He is the very incarnation of sincerity.” His senior staff urged him to spend more time with the press, letting them know his role in putting together the plan for Operation Overlord. Despite his senior officers’ urging, he refused to spend time with the press, saying that he was dealing with huge egos that he couldn’t compete with them for publicity.

On the evening of June 5 after he made the fateful decision to launch the D—Day invasion the following morning, he typed a note that he would issue in the event the invasion didn’t succeed: “Our landings Š have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Not everyone understood or respected Ike’s leadership style. Alan Brooke, a senior British officer, considered Ike an affable but useless “coordinator” who had “little knowledge of the battlefield.” He had ongoing problems in dealing with Montgomery, whose ego and arrogance seemed limitless at times. Some in Britain considered Montgomery the greatest British military man in over a century, and Monty clearly agreed with that assessment.

Ike was both gracious and firm. He sought Montgomery’s opinions, gave him many opportunities to grab the spotlight, kept him informed, and often used some of his advice when the two differed. But he would also draw a clear line when Monty pushed too hard or when he occasionally went beyond his orders, and reminded him who was in charge and where authority and responsibility finally lay.

For instance, in the fall of 1944 the Allied troops were making slow progress moving toward Germany. Montgomery insisted that he could get to Berlin faster if Ike would put the American First Army under Monty’s command. Ike knew that politically, it was impossible. The majority of Allied troops in Europe were Americans, and FDR and the American people simply wouldn’t accept giving the British all of the glory. Ike gave Montgomery a mini lecture in the realities of holding together a multinational force, dealing with political leaders and pressures, while trying to keep his eye on the military objectives. And he forced Monty to rise above his own personal ambitions, telling him that “good will and mutual confidence are, of course, mandatory.” Montgomery took it well. In the winter of 1945, as Allied superiority over Germany became obvious, a huge disagreement took place between Ike, Brooke and Montgomery over the best strategy for invading Germany. Ike listened to both, heard their criticisms of his strategy, gave their points consideration, but decided to stay with his plan (which proved quite successful). He didn’t lose his temper, nor did he alienate the Brits. He made decisions on the merits, and everyone felt heard and respected. Indeed, once the conflict was resolved, Monty sent him a letter to say “what a privilege and honor it’s been to serve under you. I owe much to your wise guidance and kindly forbearanceŠI do not suppose I am an easy subordinate; I like to go my own way Š but you have taught me much.”

As this incident shows, Ike was gifted at the art of persuasion. Unlike Montgomery and Brooke, who were caustic and preferred working alone, Ike enjoyed working with others. He spent time bringing people together, getting everyone’s views out on the table, using their ideas when possible, and usually found ways to bring others to see his point of view when it was time to make a decision.

The late Stephen Ambrose, who wrote several fine books on Eisenhower, concluded that Ike’s deepest conviction was that victory depended on making the alliance work. He insisted on remaining objective, to see issues from others’ points of view, not to dismiss others just because of their inflated egos. He refused to focus on people’s motives. For instance, he didn’t assume (as many others did) that Montgomery was mainly motivated by his desire for personal advancement. Thus, he could make decisions on the substance, not on personalities.

Western society faced an unparalleled challenge during World War II. We were able to succeed for many reasons. Looking back, it may seem inevitable that our superior force and high moral purpose guaranteed victory, but that’s not so. Many factors could have derailed our effort. If the British weren’t able to withstand the Nazi “blitz” of London, if the Russians didn’t continue fighting (and absorbing roughly 20 million casualties), if the Alliance leaders couldn’t agree on the key strategies (Hitler assumed they wouldn’t), these and other factors could have resulted in some sort of compromise with the Nazis. And none of the key success factors was more important than Eisenhower’s ability to lead a difficult coalition. His was an extraordinary example of collaborative leadership.

Author’s note: The quotes in this article are from: The Supreme Allied Commander: The War Years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, by Stephen Ambrose.


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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .