What Ike Taught Us About Leadership
There’s absolutely no shortage of books on leadership lining bookshelves in libraries and book stores and available online. Books by leaders in business and in government. Books by notable figures from academia and the entertainment industry, and from our field — the fire service. As a history buff, I’d rather enhance my understanding about leadership by reading biographies on famous historical figures, including military and political leaders who guided our nation through challenging times. If you look at my own bookshelf, you’ll see plenty of books on Dwight D. Eisenhower. While he was a great leader as our 34th President, I’ve always been interested in studying his leadership as commander of D-Day.
I’ve had the good fortune of visiting the beaches of Normandy, France on two separate occasions — both commemorating the anniversary of the D-Day invasion on December 6, 1944. In 2001 I traveled alone. The trip was a birthday gift from my family. Three years later, I took my sixth-grade son with me for the 60th anniversary celebration. It was a tremendous learning experience for the two of us.
If you ever want to do a case study on leadership to enhance your leadership attributes, read about General Eisenhower and his command of the D-Day operation. Imagine assuming command of a military operation of this scale that had never been attempted before in warfare. Failure was not an option, only success. Eisenhower had command of approximately 160,000 troops from four different countries, and had as his deputies, men of sizable egos whom he had to form into a unified team of advisors.
The allied armies prevailed on D-Day thanks in large part to the leadership of General Eisenhower. What’s ironic about Eisenhower is that he never served a day in combat. He spent much of his career behind a desk or at military basis training troops: he never spent a day in the trenches. And yet despite his lack of combat experience, he excelled as a leader.
So, what made him a leader capable of guiding an allied army to victory across the terrain of western Europe? In my readings, I have found five leadership attributes that Eisenhower possessed. These are attributes found in most successful leaders — attributes that every aspiring leader in the fire service should embrace:
- Trust — Eisenhower placed great trust in his deputies. He seldom left no stone unturned when making critical decisions. He didn’t always agree with the advice, but he was always willing to seek it.
- Resolve — Eisenhower did not waiver once he made a decision; he was fully committed to its execution.
- Optimism — Eisenhower once said, “Optimism and pessimism are infectious, and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction.” He exuded optimism whenever he met with his troops, which is why they were willing to fight for him.
- Humility — Few if any pictures exist of General Eisenhower speaking from a pedestal or wearing a uniform adorned with military ribbons and medals. In his mind, acclaim on the battlefield should always go to those who fought bravely and spilled their blood.
- Responsibility — Eisenhower drafted a message on the eve of D-Day that he was prepared to release if the allied armies could not establish a foothold on the Normandy beaches. The last line read, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Many scholars far more knowledgeable than I have written volumes of work about Eisenhower, the simple soldier from Kansas, arguably the greatest general in American military history and our 34th president. Yet in most of the books I’ve read, Eisenhower’s greatness — at least as a military leader — can be distilled into five essential attributes: trust, resolve, optimism, humility, and responsibility. Those five attributes can govern the way we all lead as members of the fire service.
Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As Executive Director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.
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