I am often asked who I look up to as an example of a great Chief Executive Officer. As I write this today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We all owe a debt of gratitude to all the individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for the Allied cause. It just happens that my selection for best CEO of the 20th century would go to the leader of that effort and former President Dwight Eisenhower. While there are many worthy candidates, President Eisenhower performed exceptionally well in two of the toughest assignments anyone could possibly undertake.
As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe he marshalled not only the American troops but also a huge contingent of resources from other Allied countries to achieve arguably the greatest military victory of the 20th century. He was selected for the job over many more senior commanders and had to command generals to whom he had previously reported. He also had to manage a “Board of Directors” with quite strong personalities such as Churchill and FDR. It was the toughest job anyone could undertake, and he performed magnificently.
Of course in hindsight it might be easy to say the victory was inevitable, but it did not appear that way to Eisenhower even at the time he gave the order to commence the attack. He took the time to write a letter taking blame for the operation in case it failed. Fortunately, the operation was a success and in 1952 he rode that success into the White House.
Ike’s time in the White House was reported by the press at the time to be an almost leisurely Presidency, where he spent more time playing golf than running the country. I am reminded of a quote by Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
I believe President Eisenhower’s reputation will continue to grow for the job he did. While he was not flashy, the period from 1952 to 1960 represents a golden era of peace and prosperity in the midst of a world that was quite uncertain and still recovering from amazing devastation. He dealt with a growing Soviet threat and numerous issues at home that would befuddle future Presidents. He remained quite popular through both terms, producing the rare occurrence of leaving office almost as popular as when he entered.
Studying Eisenhower is a great place to start if you are looking for learnings about serving as Chief Executive.