Five Lessons I Learned From Eisenhower

February 7, 2012

I’m nearly finished with a lengthy biography of our 34th President, Dwight David Eisenhower entitled, Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith. I chose this book to review for Amazon Vine for a few reasons. First, I needed some variety in my recent reading. Secondly, I’m fascinated by history of the World War 11 era. Third, I knew little of Eisenhower other than from history in school. He died in 1969, 9 years before I was born. Fourth, I’m a sucker for biography.

It’s a terrific read. What I’m gaining most from Eisenhower’s life story are lessons of leadership. Perhaps more than any other figure in modern American history, Eisenhower stands as an exemplary leader in a variety of arenas: military, international affairs, and government. So, here are the five leadership lessons I learned from this great man:

1) Leadership is Intentional. All through Eisenhower’s life, he intentionally chose or sought out leadership posts. He made the right calls, knew the right people, made the right moves. He was intentional about where he wanted to go in his life. Too often we’re passive to the point of inaction. We can overact. We can be overeager. We can push ourselves and make choices based on impatience. Eisenhower didn’t seem to do this. But he also was unafraid to act, to go through open doors.

2) There is No Substitute for Hard Work. Eisenhower was a tireless worker. He was always prepared. At every level of leadership in the military, he was dependable and folks knew he could get the job done. Hard work is the stuff nobody wants to do. It’s the stuff people try to shortcut. But leaders, good ones, put in the time and preparation and are ready to answer the call.

3) Relationships Matter Eisenhower jumped several levels in his military career. Much of it was competence, but most of it was because he tended his relationships. He was a man that could get along with almost anybody. He knew how to manage people well and could be counted on to navigate tough negotiations and put people under him in places of success. He was a political maestro, knowing when to push buttons and when not too.

4) Leaders Take Responsibility and Lead. Eisenhower was unafraid to lead, even if it cost him something. When President, he often went against his advisors, especially when they were eager to rush into war. He did this while Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces as well. He gathered all the pertinent information, listened to the wisdom of others, but for a tough decision, he wasn’t afraid to lead. Sometimes he made poor choices, but he usually led well. Leaders should lead with consensus, but should not  be afraid to actually lean in, push forward, and lead.

5) Reputation is Everything. Because of Eisenhower’s reputation, he had political capital that allowed him to make tough choices as a general and as the President, choices that often went against people he typically agreed with ideologically. He had the leadership weight people trusted. This is vital. Character matters. It give us the margin to make choices folks may not understand.

6) Appearances Matter. This is a negative lesson I learned. It appears, though many are not sure, that Eisenhower may have had a mistress while serving in Europe. His children have dismissed it and many scholars have rejected it, however some insist. But his interactions with his driver, Kay Summersby, lent themselves to those kinds of whispers. By all accounts he had at least a relationship that “looked like an affair”, one faithful men would avoid for reasons of temptation and also appearances of unfaithfulness. Its’ amazing that a man as brilliant and careful as Dwight Eisenhower could have been so careless in this private area. But it shows that all leaders have vulnerabilities. Men, we’d be wise to have good, strong boundaries so we don’t invite temptation or arouse suspicion of our character. As leaders, we are being watched more than we know.