Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower #2: How to Not Let Anger and Criticism Get the Best of You

The best leaders need to learn how to deal with criticism and anger. The key is always maintaining a level head when others are trying to wear you down, while avoiding making the same mistakes they do.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s parents allowed his two older brothers go trick-or-treating on Halloween when he was ten years old, but told Ike he was too young to join them. Dwight was disappointed after looking forward to a night of fun and independence. He pushed his case for going out, begging and pleading with his parents to alter their views till his siblings finally went out into the night without him. Ike walked out into the yard, enraged, and began hammering on the trunk of an apple tree, pummeling the bark until his fists were bleeding. After a few swats with a hickory stick, his father eventually yanked the youngster away and ordered him to bed. Ike cried into his pillow, feeling as though the universe was conspiring against him.

Eisenhower’s mother entered his room after an hour and sat in the rocking rocker near his bed. She rocked quietly for a few moments before speaking to young Dwight, telling him she was worried about his anger and that, of all her sons, he had the most to learn about controlling his emotions. Mrs. Eisenhower went on to say that attempting to do so and attaining self-mastery were essential. She informed her son, citing the Bible, that “he who conquereth his own soul is greater than he who conquereth a city.” Then she gave him some life-changing advice, Ike remembered:

“Hating was a pointless activity,” she said, “since there was nothing to be gained by hating anybody or anything.” The individual who had caused my dissatisfaction was probably unconcerned, if at all, and the only one who was hurt was myself.”

As Eisenhower’s mother administered ointment and bandages to Ike’s injured hands, she emphasized her point by pointing out how Ike’s rash anger and resentment had accomplished nothing except harm to himself.

Dwight fell asleep after calming down and apologizing for his outburst.

The Anger Drawer of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Motivational words by Dwight D Eisenhower.

While Eisenhower’s parents never mentioned his Halloween outburst again, it was a watershed moment for Ike: “I have always regarded that talk as one of the most significant events of my life,” he remarked. Of course, young Dwight did not rush out of bed the following day and never had another problem managing his rage. He was sensitive and thin-skinned when it came to criticism, and his white hot temper flared up from time to time, turning his face bright red, raising the hair on the back of his neck, pumping him full of adrenaline, and rendering him unconscious; once he got going, his anger would possess him and he would “blaze for an hour.” Ike could see how these fits of wrath would prevent him from ever being a good leader: they would squander his time and obscure his judgment. “Anger cannot prevail, it cannot even think well,” he remarked.

As a result, Ike “made it a religion never to indulge” in these episodes for many years. He created the following strategy for regulating his wrath against others, in addition to applying basic discipline to his emotions:

 

“I make it a point to avoid disliking anybody to this day.” If someone has done something he shouldn’t have done, particularly to me, I attempt to forget about it. I used to have a habit of writing the man’s name on a piece of paper, dropping it into the bottom drawer of my desk, and telling myself, ‘That terminates the episode, and that individual, as far as I’m concerned.’

Over time, the drawer deteriorated into a private wastebasket for crumbling resentment and abandoned egos. Furthermore, it seemed to be efficient and assisted me in avoiding negative sentiments. Of course, the item was only used for personal matters. During World War II, I had no doubts about my strong hate for Hitler and all he stood for. But there were other options for dealing with him beyond the drawer.”

During his tenure as Supreme Commander and subsequently in his political career, Eisenhower had plenty of opportunities to unleash his rage. During the war, Ike was irritated by the way journalists, hundreds of miles distant from the action and pressed for time, would simplify a complicated series of events by putting the responsibility for anything on a single person. “The simplest of all hunting trips is the quest for a scapegoat,” Eisenhower accurately remarked. And Ike was often used as a scapegoat. “I should have recognized the sufficient warning that the written word is not necessarily the complete truth” in the tales that started to spread about Eisenhower during his war years, he wrote. When an unfavorable impression of his leadership was brought to his notice, “the hoked-up details typically evoked from [him] little more than a grimace or, once in a while, a loud chuckle,” Ike was able to take it in stride and go back to work.

My Burning Pot

Skull in a burning fire bowl.

I was enthralled and interested by Eisenhower’s approach of coping with his wrath against others, so I decided to try it out for myself. Despite my best efforts, something someone says or does may sometimes get under my skin. During the day, I’ll find myself thinking about it aggressively, which makes it difficult for me to focus on my job.

Eisenhower’s fury drawer sounded fine, but the crumpled up bits of paper building up in my desk didn’t seem cathartic enough. So I modified Ike’s idea by purchasing an ashtray with a skull on it. I’d cut a little piece of paper, write down the name of the person or circumstance that was bothering me, and then light a match to burn the paper.

I discovered that the paper didn’t burn properly and produced a lot of smoke and ash, so I’ve switched to using little bits of flash paper (which burns up and then somehow vanishes–so it’s much fun to use that I’ve practically been wishing for someone to annoy me…). With a flick of the match, the rage and resentment go, and I grin and return to work.

 

What’s with the skull, by the way? Because while the paper burns, I can look at it and reflect on how stupid it is to spend time thinking about people who don’t matter–my own skull resting under my skin–and how worthless it is to waste time thinking about people who don’t matter. “Never spend a minute thinking about someone you don’t like!” Ike says as I stare at that skull.

As Eisenhower phrased it, “a little contrived.” Sure. It is, however, an excellent technique to interrupt the loop of fruitless ruminating.

____

Ike’s rage flared up now and again, despite his steely discipline (after decades of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, Eisenhower chose one day to stop and never picked up a cigarette again) and the aid of his anger drawer. However, Eisenhower considered that these brief spurts may be advantageous if they didn’t linger too long:

“A fast explosion may occasionally be an essential safety valve, but it’s also easily forgotten.” My mother seemed to have agreed.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Leadership Lessons Series: How to Increase and Maintain Morale How to Handle Anger and Criticism Without Losing Your Cool How to Make a Major Decision Always Be Prepared

Sources:

Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Eisenhower: Soldier and President

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends