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Major General Dwight Eisenhower in 1942.

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What Trump could learn, if he were open to the possibility that he might have something to learn

The stark contrast between the leadership style and behavior of one of the greatest U.S. generals and presidents of the 20th century and our current White House resident draws our attention like a car wreck on the highway

James Freedman (Jim.freedman@gmail.com) is a leadership consultant working in the global health-care sector.

Brattleboro

In this season of autumnal changes, one can look back and remember some of the most challenging changes in the history of the world and modern South Korea.

In September of 1950, 70 years ago, one of the most important events of the Korean conflict took place in Iuncheon with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous landing, which turned the tide of the battle for Korea.

Following his retirement as Supreme Commander of NATO in 1952, Dwight David Eisenhower (“Ike”), a leader who made his mark in the some of the most turbulent times of the 20th century, became the USA commander-in-chief when he won the 1952 presidential election. He later negotiated the armistice that ended the Korean conflict in July of 1953.

Just this past month, a uniquely designed memorial to his service, both as a general and president, was opened to the public in Washington, D.C. in the form of a book.

Ike‘s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, an expert on international security and Russian-U.S. relations, has written How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions, a book that gives us a very personal insight into her relationship with him as a leader and her reflections about what she learned from him about leadership.

In ordinary times, hardly anyone would notice another book on leadership. Amazon currently lists more than 90,000 titles when you search for books using that keyword.

But these are hardly ordinary times, and Ike was hardly an ordinary leader.

The stark contrast between the leadership style and behavior of one of the greatest U.S. generals and presidents of the 20th century and our current White House resident draws our attention like a car wreck on the highway. You must slow down and take notice. It is said that crisis does not build character, it reveals it — for better or for worse.

* * *

According to the author, Ike’s leadership was characterized by several enduring principles: unity of purpose, respect for experts and their recommendations, a rigorous reverence for and attention to detail and facts, the need to take your job but not yourself seriously, and ultimate personal responsibility for all decisions.

Ike was acutely aware that leadership in politics and leadership in the military were entirely different beasts. During his tenure as president, he grew and learned daily about the differences and how to adjust accordingly.

He knew that unity of purpose needed to include all citizens, not only those who were most likely to agree with him. He was known to always seek the “middle way.” If he were open to the possibility that he might have something to learn, the current president of the United States would have a lot to learn from Ike’s example.

Ike had a reputation as an excellent planner and knew that his plans would rise or fall on the correctness of the facts that his experts presented to him, whether he agreed with them or not. He was able to put his opinions aside and listen with an open mind to evidence-based ideas that might contradict his original thoughts.

The author tells us that whenever Ike presented his final plans and decisions, he would start by saying that he had accepted the recommendations of his experts and would take full and personal responsibility for all errors.

Yet later, he would shower acclaim for successes on all those involved.

* * *

We know from recent experience and observations by those closest to him that none of the above behaviors are remotely similar to those exhibited by our current White House resident.

Leadership is both an emotional and an intellectual activity. One cannot help but see, hear, and feel the striking differences between how Ike led and the behavior of current leaders in the USA and in various nations around the world.

General Norman Schwarzkopf of Operation Desert Storm said that you can learn more from a bad leader than a good one because you learn how not to do it.

There is much to be learned from the current unique cohort of global leaders with various levels of success in dealing with the coronavirus, from President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to Angela Merkel of Germany to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.

There is a Buddhist saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Let us hope and pray that we, as students of and participants in current history, are ready and know that the lessons we learn will be the right ones.

And let us vote accordingly.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #583 (Wednesday, October 14, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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