Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bill Marriott Jr. on the Lesson He Learned from Ike

In this week's New York Times Corner Office column, Adam Bryant interviews Bill Marriott Jr., Executive Chairman and former CEO of Marriott International.   The hotel company's longtime leader and founder's son offered this interesting anecdote about a time when he met President Dwight Eisenhower. 

In 1954, I had just finished Supply Corps School and came home for Christmas to our farm in Virginia. Dad’s best friend at the time was Ezra Taft Benson, who was secretary of agriculture and later became president of the L.D.S. church [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. And he invited Ike and Mamie Eisenhower. So here’s the president and the secretary of agriculture, here’s my father, and here I am. They wanted to take Ike to shoot some quail, but it was cold and the wind was blowing like crazy. My dad said, “Should we go and shoot quail or should we stand by the fire?”And Eisenhower turned around and looked at me and he said, “What do you think we should do?”  That made me realize how he got along with de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and others — by including them in the decision and asking them what they thought. So I tried to adopt that style of management as I progressed in life, by asking my people, “What do you think?” Now, I didn’t always go with what they thought. But I felt that if I included them in the decision-making process, and asked them what they thought, and I listened to what they had to say and considered it, they usually got on board because they knew they’d been respected and heard, even if I went in a different direction than what they were recommending. 

I found the anecdote fascinating, because it confirms my conclusions about Eisenhower as a decision-maker.  In Chapter 9 of Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer, I examine Eisenhower's leadership during the months leading up to the D-Day invasion.    Here is an excerpt:

General Dwight Eisenhower commanded one of the most powerful military forces ever assembled in human history during World War II.   Under his skilled leadership, the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of France, defeated Hitler’s army, and liberated Europe.  Several years later, the American people elected the popular war hero as their President.   Naturally, not everyone believed that the retired general would make a smooth transition to the Oval Office.  During Harry Truman’s final months in the White House, he reflected on the challenges awaiting his successor: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.  Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army.  He’ll find it very frustrating.”[i]  

Truman spoke from experience.  Getting his ideas and decisions implemented had been a formidable challenge at times.  The obstacles did not always prove to be his opponents in Congress; at times, Truman encountered resistance from members of his own administration.[ii]  Political scientist Richard Neustadt, who worked for Truman and several other chief executives, once observed, “The President of the United States has an extraordinary range of formal powers… despite his ‘powers’ he does not obtain results by giving orders – or not, any rate, merely by giving orders.”[iii]   Even the leader of the free world needs to build commitment and shared understanding if he wants his decisions to be executed in a timely and efficient manner.    

As it turns out, Eisenhower could not simply issue dictums from on high, even as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II.[iv]   He needed to hold a complicated alliance together and balance the competing demands of many strong-willed individuals on both sides of the Atlantic including the two heads of state, Churchill and Roosevelt; each nation’s military chief of staff, Marshall and Brooke; and powerful field commanders such as Montgomery, Patton, Tedder, and Spaatz.   Historian Stephen Ambrose has pointed out that Eisenhower’s diplomatic skills often proved to be more important than his strategy-making prowess.  He observed:

“Although none of his immediate superiors or subordinates seemed to realize it, Eisenhower could not afford to be a table-thumper.  With Montgomery’s prestige, power, and personality, for example, had Eisenhower stormed into his headquarters, banged his fist on the table, and shouted out a series of demands, his actions could have been disastrous.”[v] 

Eisenhower learned the importance of persuasion from one of his mentors, Brigadier General Fox Conner.  Eisenhower served on Conner’s staff in the Panama Canal Zone during the early 1920s.  Conner shared stories and lessons about his time on General Pershing’s staff during World War I.  He made the young Eisenhower study history extensively.  Eisenhower explained what he learned: 
“He laid great stress in his instruction to me on what he called the ‘art of persuasion.’  Since no foreigner could be given outright administrative command of troops of another nation, they would have to be coordinated very closely, and this needed persuasion.  He would get out a book of applied psychology and we would talk it over.  How do you get allies of different nations to march and think as a nation?  There is no question of his molding my thinking on this from the time I was thirty-one.”[vi]  

As Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force many years later, Eisenhower indeed proved quite adept at bringing people together and finding common ground. The enemy too recognized Eisenhower’s strengths as a leader; the Germans once wrote that, “His strongest point is said to be an ability for adjusting personalities to one another and smoothing over opposite viewpoints.”[vii] Consider how Eisenhower chose the D-Day invasion strategy amidst much contentious debate among the heads of state and military commanders.  He built commitment to the final plan by leading a fair and legitimate decision process.   During often heated deliberations, Ambrose points out that Eisenhower “acted as chairman, listening judiciously to both sides, then making the final decision.”[viii]   He insured that everyone “received a fair hearing.”[ix]  Moreover, “his basic method was to approach all problems objectively himself, and to convince others that he was objective.”[x]  

[i] R. Neustadt. (1980). Presidential power. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 9. 
[ii] Reflecting on the inefficiencies of decision-making within the U.S. government, Truman once said, “When you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship." 
[iii] Neustadt, (1980). p. 10. 
[iv] This discussion of the decision-making process leading up to the D-Day invasion draws from historian Stephen Ambrose’s book on Eisenhower’s war years.  See S. Ambrose. (1970). The supreme commander: The war years of Dwight D. Eisenhower. New York: Doubleday.  For instructors wishing to teach about Eisenhower’s approach to planning the D-Day invasion, they might consider asking students to view a film about the decision-making process that the general led during the first half of 1944.  See R. Harmon. (2004). Ike: Countdown to D Day. Columbia Tristar.
[v] Ambrose, (1970). p. 323.   
[vi] Jean Edward Smith. Eisenhower in War and Peace.  2012.  New York: Random House. pg. 66.  
[vi] Ambrose, (1970). p. 324. 
[viii] Ambrose, (1970). p. 371. 
[ix] Ambrose, (1970). p. 373. 
[x] Ambrose, (1970). p. 664.

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