1: Five days after Pearl Harbor, Dwight D. Eisenhower received orders to report immediately to the War Department in Washington, D.C. Stationed in San Antonio at the time, Ike was a one-star general and had no idea why he had been summoned. He took the next plane to Washington, write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.
Upon arriving, Ike was ushered immediately into a meeting alone with Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall.
“Without preamble, for the next twenty minutes, Marshall outlined the United States’ calamitous position in the Pacific. The fleet in Pearl Harbor would be disabled for months,” Raymond and Michael write. “The Japanese had also bombed the Philippines, inflicting unknown but presumably severe damage upon the American aircraft there. The American garrison in the Philippines was tiny, and the Filipino ground forces inadequately trained. And the Japanese meant to overrun the islands as soon as possible.
“Then Marshall looked Eisenhower in the eye and abruptly asked: ‘What should be our general line of action?’
Ike paused. He hadn’t even unpacked his bag. He knew better than to answer off the cuff. Instead, he asked for a “few hours” to think about it. George agreed.
2: Ike retreated to a vacant office to prepare the first of many memoranda distilling his thoughts during the war.
Ike recalled, “a curious echo from the long ago came to my aid.” He remembered a prediction of General Fox Conner, Ike’s mentor during World War I and a man he admired above all others. Fox said another great war would come and that when it did come, the one man who could lead the American military was “Marshall—he is close to being a genius.” With this description in mind, Ike decided his “answer should be short, empathic, and based on reasoning in which I honestly believed.”
He then got down to business.
“In his memorandum—entitled “Steps to Be Taken’—Ike asserted that, even though the Filipino cause appeared hopeless, the United States should send an aircraft carrier from San Diego to Australia, build up a strong base of supply there, and make every effort to save the Philippines,” Raymond and Michael write. The problem was not strictly a military one. “His thoughts reflected the broader political perspective that would prove essential to his leadership throughout the war.”
Back in Marshall’s office, Ike said, “We must do everything for them that is humanly possible. The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies, will be watching us. They may excuse failure, but they will not excuse abandonment.”
Marshall replied: “I agree with you. Do your best to save them.”
3: Two things stand out about this story. First, Ike’s instinct to step back and “think on paper.” For Ike, “the most rigorous way to think about a subject was to write about it. And so, on the subjects most important to his work, he made a practice of writing to himself,” write Raymond and Michael.
The second takeaway is the masterful way George Marshall handled the situation. He did not dictate what Ike should do. He did not give him a plan and tell him to execute it. Instead, he asked Ike to make a recommendation. Then, when George agreed with the plan, he told Ike to execute that plan, a program for which Ike had total ownership.
That’s a master class in leadership.
Reflection: Do I have a process for making important decisions?
Action: Consider a decision I need to make. Commit to “thinking on paper:” Write about the decision before making a decision.