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COLUMN: Think Again – Important lessons from a former leader

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Visit a bookstore today and you will find no shortage of books on leadership. These books typically summarize various leadership principles and suggest how we can be more effective leaders today, whether in the home, workplace, or in the public square.

I’ll be honest. I’ve never found these books particularly interesting. In far too many cases, leadership books are filled with simplistic analogies and hollow slogans. I prefer books with more substance. Hence my personal reading list consists primarily of books about history, politics, and religion.

However, I recently read a fascinating book about leadership that contained plenty of substance and was well worth my time. That’s because it was about the leadership principles that former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower applied in his own decision-making. Far from being merely theoretical, this book was filled with real-life illustrations.

How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions by Susan Eisenhower (the former president’s granddaughter) provides a behind-the-scenes look at how Eisenhower made major decisions, both as a five-star general and later as president of the United States. Eisenhower faced difficult situations where the impact of his decisions would have longstanding significance.

For example, Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during the latter part of the Second World War. It was Eisenhower who was responsible for planning the famous D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. On that day, more than 150,000 Allied troops stormed the Normandy beaches in France and soon liberated that country from Nazi control.

Obviously, an operation of this magnitude carried with it a high degree of risk. Not only did the weather have to cooperate, but Eisenhower also had to keep troop morale high and ensure that his invasion plans did not fall into enemy hands. In addition, not all of Eisenhower’s commanders were convinced that the plan would be successful. For example, the commander of the airborne forces argued that using airborne troops in this operation would result in unacceptably high casualty numbers.

To his credit, Eisenhower neither brushed aside his commander’s concerns nor cancelled the operation. Instead, he had the commander submit a letter outlining his position. That way, it would be Eisenhower alone, not his subordinates, who would take responsibility for the outcome.

Of course, as we know from history, the D-Day invasion was a success. Had it not worked out, however, it says something about Eisenhower’s character that he was prepared to accept responsibility. It’s a striking example of leadership when a man is not only able to make the tough decisions, but is willing to accept responsibility if things go badly.

Eisenhower also displayed impressive leadership qualities as president. For example, Eisenhower had to grapple with the issue of civil rights and confront white Southern politicians who were fiercely opposed to integration. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the state of Arkansas, where the governor used the National Guard to stop Black children from attending white schools in Little Rock.

After giving the Arkansas governor time to back down, Eisenhower took decisive action. He sent the 101st Airborne division to ensure Black students could attend school. He also overruled concerns from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and used an executive order to federalize the Arkansas National Guard. While Eisenhower was patient, he was prepared to take decisive action when circumstances warranted it. Protecting the civil rights of Black students was one of those times.

Being a leader is no easy task, particularly when facing tough situations. Susan Eisenhower deserves credit for giving us a window into her distinguished grandfather’s decision-making process. There is much that we can learn today from Dwight Eisenhower’s example.

Michael Zwaagstra is a high school teacher and a Steinbach city councillor. He can be reached at mzwaagstra@shaw.ca.

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