Leadership Lessons from Eisenhower: How to Make a Decision

This blog will provide some leadership lessons from the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower and how they can be applied to your own personal decisions in everyday life.

“Eisenhower on leadership quote” is a quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower has said that “leadership is a process of selection and action.”

The difficulty of planning and conducting Operation Overlord, the world’s greatest amphibious assault, was incredible.

Formulating deception plans, building artificial harbors along the British coastline, figuring out how to launch 12,000 planes and 7,000 vessels, land 24,000 paratroopers in enemy territory, get 160,000 troops across the English Channel and onto 50 miles of beaches, plotting how to resupply those men as they made their way into France, and many other details were all part of the mission.

The 16,312 personnel of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force were tasked with planning all of these operational aspects. But each of those people had a particular mission to do, and they only knew one piece of the puzzle. Only one man, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in charge of fitting all the parts together. Stephen Ambrose, his biographer, phrased it thus way:

“Someone had to lead the bureaucracy; someone had to be able to take the information they collected, make sense of it, and impose order on it; someone had to ensure that each component fit into the whole; someone had to make a decision; someone had to take responsibility and act.”

Eisenhower was the deciding factor. Everything flowed past him like a funnel. Alone he had inexhaustible cares, and only he bore the colossal responsibility of leadership. This position put him under a great deal of stress, which grew exponentially with each passing day.”

Eisenhower stoically embraced the challenge, working 100-hour weeks for months on end, agonizing into the mechanics of this massive effort. By June 2, virtually all of the parts had been put in place. Only one major choice remained: determining the precise start date and time for Operation Overlord.

The launch date has previously been determined: June 5-7. The conditions that would give the operation the best chance of success would converge during these three days: a full moon to aid gliders and aircraft in identifying navigational landmarks as they flew in and dropped paratroopers the night before the invasion, a sunrise time that would allow 40 minutes of daylight to complete aerial and naval bombardments before the GIs hit the beaches, and a low tide to allow the Germans’ obstacles and mines in the surf to be remowed.

However, the exact start date and time for Operation Overlord had still to be determined. Eisenhower, once again, bore all responsibility for that choice. And, despite all of his preparations, the result was totally dependent on a factor that he had no control over: the weather.

Vintage quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ike has provisionally scheduled the start of Operation Overlord for June 5th.

On June 2, SHAEF established its headquarters at Southwick House, a beautiful country manor just north of Portsmouth. Instead of staying in the home’s more opulent guestrooms, Eisenhower elected to stay in an inexpensive, unheated trailer he called “my circus wagon.”

The Southwick House’s library turned command room hosted two daily weather briefings, one at 9:30 p.m. and the other at 4:00 a.m. Eisenhower and his invasion commanders — General Bernard Law Montgomery, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory, Lt. General Omar Bradley, and Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith — gathered in the sparsely decorated room for an evening briefing on June 3rd. The walls were lined with mainly empty dark wood bookshelves, thick blackout curtains covered the windows, and a giant map of Europe was mounted on one wall, marked with push pins and arrows. The Royal British Air Force’s meteorologist, Scottish Group Captain J.M. Stagg, took the floor. He and his team of experts had debated what the notoriously difficult to forecast weather over the English Channel had in store for the week and had come to a depressing conclusion: a series of depressions were moving in from the west, bringing overcast skies, Force 4 or 5 winds, and low cloud cover with them. According to Stagg, it was a prognosis “possibly full of peril,” and Eisenhower and his troops responded with somber silence.

 

Ike didn’t get much sleep that night and was only able to nibble at his meals the following day. The weight of the coming choice was sitting heavily on his shoulders, and strain was growing in his bones and sinews; coworkers felt he had never looked older or exhausted. Ike made a memorandum in his diary, noting all of the things that were bothering him, to pass the time and get some perspective on his uneasiness. “Probably no one who hasn’t had the precise and direct duty of making the ultimate choice on what to do can comprehend the magnitude of these duties,” he wrote.

Stagg reaffirmed his prior prognosis when Ike and his commanders convened again at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 4, informing the soldiers that June 5th would see heavy winds, low clouds, and tumultuous surf – circumstances that might turn D-Day into a tragedy. It was impossible to think that the weather would change so dramatically – the early morning was clear and windless. Despite the fact that his commanders were divided on whether or not to go, Eisenhower opted to postpone the operation for 24 hours.

A ferocious wind blasted up a few hours later, just as Stagg had prophesied.

On June 4, Eisenhower paced nervously outside his trailer, kicking stones and chain-smoking cigarettes in the stiffening wind. He remembered the intelligence report he’d received, which said that Germany had just reinforced the Normandy front with new forces.

He considered the fact that just 15% of his D-Day men had ever experienced combat before; how would the green soldiers do when they fought their way up the Normandy beaches amid the blistering barrage of German firepower?

He imagined the troops crammed into guarded military camps (they couldn’t leave after they’d been briefed on their part in the invasion, lest they pass the knowledge on to the enemy) and stuck onboard thousands of ships swaying and idling in the water, waiting for his instructions. “The great host was tight as a coiled spring,” Eisenhower thought.

Ike was troubled by these concerns and others, but above all, he was worried about what would happen if a weather break did not materialize; the repercussions, Eisenhower remarked, were “terrifying to contemplate:”

“Secrecy would be compromised.” Assault soldiers would be unloaded and crammed back into barbed-wired assembly zones, where their original positions would have been taken by those in future waves. The need of complicated movement tables would be eliminated. Morale would plummet. A fourteen-day, maybe twenty-eight-day delay would be required—a kind of suspended animation involving almost 2,000,000 males! The window of opportunity for significant campaigning would shrink even more, and the enemy’s defenses would become much more formidable! The entirety of the United Kingdom would rapidly realize something was wrong, and national disapproval in both countries may have unintended consequences. Finally, there was the information that the enemy was building new, potentially effective, secret weapons off the coast of France. We couldn’t even anticipate what impact this would have on our busy ports, particularly in Plymouth and Portsmouth.”

 

If Ike decides to go through with D-Day despite the weather, thousands of lives might be lost and the mission’s success could be jeopardized, severely hurting the overall Allied effort. However, if he postponed the procedure, the implications may be just as bad.

Ike was “bowed down with worry…as though each of the four stars on each shoulder weighed a ton,” according to a reporter who walked with him that day.

Vintage quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower, man standing on mid the flags.

Ike and his commanders gathered in the Southwick House library on the night of June 4th, anxiously expecting probably the most crucial weather prediction in history. Outside, hurricane-force gusts shook the glass panes of the room’s French doors. Rain fell in sheets over the windows in a horizontal pattern. The weather mirrored the men’s pessimism; the invasion’s odds of succeeding seemed improbable.

So what came out of Stagg’s lips was unexpected: the rain will cease in the next 2-4 hours, and a 36-hour window with improved winds and visibility would open. Soon later, the window would shut, and inclement weather would resume. However, the chance had presented itself.

The guys applauded. “You’ve never heard a group of middle-aged guys applaud so loudly!” Stagg recalled something.

After then, the debate started. Ike and his commanders bombarded the meteorologist with questions regarding cloud and wave conditions, which Stagg couldn’t definitively answer.

It was feared that if inclement weather reappeared, it would prevent the future waves of soldiers from reaching the beach, isolating the first invasion battalions. While the skies were expected to clear somewhat, the level of cloud cover for the air attack was less than ideal, prompting Leigh-Mallory to call going ahead “iffy” and Tedder to argue that circumstances for the heavy bombers were too “risky.”

Eisenhower walked around the room, pointing his chin at each guy and asking for his thoughts. “It’s a tremendous risk, but it’s the finest conceivable gamble,” Smith informed him. Ramsey was adamantly opposed, whilst Montgomery said, “I would say go!”

It was tempting to put off making a choice until they could obtain another weather report at their next briefing, hoping that this would provide more clarity. However, if Overlord was to take place on June 6, Admiral Alan G. Kirk, commander of the American task force, required his instructions to make ship within the hour.

Ike kept pacing around the room. “The issue is, how long can you hang this operation on a branch and leave it there?” he wondered. The room was deafeningly quiet, and the question was rhetorical. His advisers had spoken up. Ike was the only one who could pull the trigger. It’s difficult to imagine the “loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a significant choice had to be made by him, with full understanding that failure or success relies on his particular judgment,” as Smith subsequently remembered.

“I am pretty certain that the order must be delivered,” Eisenhower informed his staff at 9:45 p.m. When Ike gave the preliminary go-ahead, 5,000 ships set sail for France. He had the option of calling them again; the final decision would be taken at the next briefing. However, a recall would necessitate the ships returning to port to refuel, delaying the next attempt by a fortnight or perhaps a month until lunar and tidal circumstances are favorable again.

 

Ike went back to his trailer for a rough night’s sleep. As the wind and rain rocked his trailer, he tossed and twisted.

Eisenhower awoke at 3:30 a.m. on June 5th for the last weather briefing. The moment of truth had come, and the ultimate choice needed to be made. The storm rattled the walls of Southwick House as hot cups of coffee were handed around; the weather outside provided no promise of clearing, no evidence to back up Stagg’s warning. However, the forecast reaffirmed his prediction that the wind and rain will soon subside, revealing a 36-hour window of better weather. Montgomery and Smith were still in favor of proceeding; Tedder was not, and Leigh-Mallory was still skeptical that the skies would be clear enough for the aircraft attack. Stagg exited the room; there would be no more weather updates for many hours. Ike had all the knowledge he’d ever need; all he had to do now was think over every report and commander’s viewpoint before acting.

Ike walked the polished wood floor once again, his head buried into his chest and his hands clasped behind his back. The only sound in the room was the crackling of wood in the fireplace. “O.K., let’s leave,” Eisenhower murmured softly but carefully to his staff after just a few laps around the room. “Without saying anything further,” Ike said, “everyone marched out to his own place of duty to flash out to his command the signals that would start the whole host in action.” In a fog of pipe and cigarette smoke, Ike was left alone. The operation’s big wheels had started turning, and Eisenhower couldn’t stop them now. He had been one of the world’s most powerful men moments before; now the burden for Operation Overlord’s success or failure had shifted from his hands to the soldiers parachuting into hedgerows and assaulting the beaches of France.

How had Eisenhower summoned the courage to make one of history’s most important decisions? “I had to,” he later stated, “because if I let anybody, any of my superiors, believe that things weren’t going to work out, that I was worried, they’d be terrified.” I didn’t dare to do it. I needed to be self-assured. I had to persuade them that everything would work out.”

Vintage quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower and soldiers are standing illustration.

Thinking about how Eisenhower decided to launch D-Day has provided me with a lot of insight into how a successful leader makes choices. But it’s after he departed Southwick House that day that the portion of the narrative that has stayed with me the most.

All that was left was the “interminable wait that invariably occurs between the high command’s final decision and the earliest conceivable judgment of success or failure in such endeavors.” Ike went to lunch and announced the invasion to the press. He then sat down at his fold-up desk to compose a note. He realized he’d have to send out a press statement in the coming days:

 

Vintage quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower illustration.

Eisenhower unintentionally typed “July” when writing this “in case of failure” memo on June 5, demonstrating how stressed he was.

Eisenhower finished writing the message, folded it up, placed it into his wallet, and proceeded to see the 101st Airborne Division before they set out for France.

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

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

Carlo D’Este’s Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe

Southwick House – The Start of D-Day

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Eisenhower was a good president. He made many decisions that helped the United States during the Cold War. Reference: was eisenhower a good president.

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