7 business leadership lessons from Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower never worked in the business sector. But his leadership principles, cultivated in war and then expressed in the Oval Office, provide a road map for every manager, entrepreneur, and chief executive today. Often we hear of presidents looking to business leaders for wisdom—Eisenhower did that himself. But as I learned while writing my book Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, the United States of America’s thirty-fourth president has a lot to offer would-be business leaders as well.

 

  1. Be gentle in manner, strong in deed.

We all know about Harry Truman’s desk plaque reading “The buck stops here.” Eisenhower had a paperweight prominently displayed on his desk with a Latin inscription meaning “gently in manner, strong in deed.” This reflected his philosophy and style. He was not full of bluster. He never threatened. As he said while a general, referring to his more explosive counterparts, “You don’t lead by beating people over the head; that’s assault, not leadership.”

 

  1. Be a navigator, not an instigator.

 

Eisenhower once described leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” How did he pull it off? By careful organization and a deliberative crafting of words to hit the right note. There’s a reason Eisenhower rewrote his speeches to the point of driving his speechwriters crazy. He knew the importance of words—especially those spoken by the person in charge—to motivate and persuade. He believed in planning. He thought it was dangerous for a leader to shoot from the hip.

 

  1. Know what you don’t know.

In our business culture, we gravitate to the big personalities, and we’re always looking for the next genius. But Eisenhower appreciated that his greatest resource was not his own genius but the genius of his team. He once wrote this piece of advice: “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.” And he believed it. He was a collaborator, not a dictator. While always mindful that the final decision was his, he relied heavily on the wise counsel of others. Most of all he relished getting everyone in a room to debate an issue. He wasn’t afraid to hear dissenting voices.

 

  1. Don’t let it go to your head.

After the Allied victory in World War II, Eisenhower was a great hero who could have written his ticket. Almost immediately the calls came for him to run for president, something he had no intention of doing. He never considered himself to be a hero when compared with the men who landed at Normandy and met the enemy on the bloody fields of battle. Soon after the war, he visited General Douglas MacArthur, his old boss, in Japan. MacArthur, pumped up about their success, crowed that as conquerors either one of them could surely be elected president. It was reported that Eisenhower left that meeting red-faced and angry. He despised the hero label. When years later he did become president, he was often criticized for not being personally forceful or out in front. He was generous about letting those around him take the credit for his ideas. This strategy paid off in loyalty and performance.

 

  1. Take the long view

It’s a great feeling to be in the catbird seat, whether you’ve just won an election or experienced a great success. But Eisenhower’s experience in war and government taught him that things can change on a dime and the mighty can fall before they rise again. When he took office, in 1953, the Senate and House were in Republican hands. Had he doubled down and shut out views from across the aisle, he would have been in for trouble when two years later the election restored Democratic control of Congress. But by then he had already laid the groundwork for working with the opposition. This cautious long game enabled him to get some important legislation signed during his presidency.

 

  1. Never attack people personally

When I was researching my book, I was struck by the fact that Eisenhower almost completely avoided criticizing people personally, and he never took cheap shots. He once lectured an aide, “A man will respect you and perhaps even like you if you differ with him on issues and on principles. But if you ever challenge his motives, he will never forgive you. Nor should he.” He understood the distinction between forceful disagreement and an attack on character.

 

  1. Be the chief morale-booster

During the war Eisenhower always made a point of visiting the troops—including spending hours with the paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division before they left for Normandy the night before D-Day. “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,” he said.

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