And Now for Something Completely the Same

"And now for something completely different," the Monty Python gang used to promise. (I went to Spamalot this past weekend.) Forget that, I want to honor this Thanksgiving with something "completely the same."

Dwight David Eisenhower, or Ike, is certainly one of the ten greatest Americans of the 20th century—and surely ranks in the top 50 for the world as a whole. As president from 1953–1960, he got us out of Korea more or less with honor, kept the Cold War from getting entirely out of hand, had the perfect demeanor for overseeing our post-war wound-licking and rejuvenation, was an unsung civil rights hero, and this great general ended his second term by warning us of the financial and political costs of a "military-industrial complex" with too much power—talk about prescience. And all this, of course, was preceded by D-Day and the campaign that ended World War II in Europe, in which Ike, make no mistake, was the prime mover.

I'm fascinated anew by DDE, and it all stemmed from a single and simple quote from General Eisenhower, which appeared in the May 2008 issue of Armchair General, a magazine I almost inadvertently grabbed at Logan Airport: "Allied commands depend on mutual confidence [and this confidence] is gained, above all through the development of friendships." The magazine's writer reinforced Ike's self-assertion by adding, "Perhaps his most outstanding ability [at West Point] was the ease with which he made friends and earned the trust of fellow cadets who came from widely varied backgrounds; it was a quality that would pay great dividends during his future coalition command."

The quotes above are borne out in Michael Korda's extraordinary, new-ish 800-page prize-winning biography in which I am currently immersed, Ike: An American Hero. I selected a more or less random couple of chapters, covering DDE's arrival in England in 1942 and his subsequent and surprising assignment to command of Torch, the Allies first offensive action of the war and the biggest and most ungainly offensive of its kind in history to that point. (The North African landing took place on my day of birth—07 November 1942.) In the space of just 43 pages (pp. 268–311) we find these phrases describing Eisenhower:

"infectious grin and great charm" ... "nice face" ... "grin that was to become so famous" ... "got along famously" ... "goodwill was spontaneous and easily recognizable" ... "good impression that Ike had made in six weeks" [newcomer junior general to Supreme Commander, Torch, agreed upon by Roosevelt and Churchill—in, yes, just six weeks] ... "least rank-conscious of generals" ... "Men were happy to serve under Ike, even British admirals and generals who might easily have raised objections; his sincerity and lack of ceremony made it difficult, even impossible, to refuse him, and enabled him very rapidly to pull a team together." ... "Ike was gregarious, rarely had anything bad to say about anyone, and, on the surface at least, was relaxed and good natured." ... "Whereas Ike's good humor was genuine, unaffected, and affectionate, Monty's [Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery] was cruel and mocking and always carried a sting."

Following successes in North Africa and Italy, Eisenhower, still a rather "fresh face" and less than two years past arriving in London as a Lieutenant Colonel, was selected as Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force Europe, tasked to invade the European continent and procure Germany's unconditional surrender. Korda explains the somewhat surprising decision:

"The Allies had generals with, perhaps, a sharper strategic vision than Ike. ... There were also generals who were more experienced at 'fighting a battle' ... But there was nobody who had anything like Ike's record of leading an alliance—always the most difficult feat in warfare. ... What is more, Ike somehow inspired people: civilians and ordinary soldiers of both nations, even cynical political figures and the always troublesome French. Something about his big grin; his long-limbed, loose American way of walking (the Kansas farm boy grown to a man); his easy, familiar way of speaking to everybody from King George VI down to privates in both armies; his lack of pretension; his evident sincerity ... They were willing to be led by him. They were willing to have him command their sons and husbands in battle. They trusted him. They were willing to die for him. ..."

(NB: Precisely these same things could be said about the two military figures I have studied most assiduously, Lord Horatio Nelson and General Ulysses S. Grant.)

(NB: When DDE subsequently ran for President of the United States in 1952, his campaign slogan was the simple "I like Ike.")


So: Why must we constantly pursue "breakthrough thinking," why must we leap "out of the box," when the secrets to success and, conversely, the causes of failure—in the sense of persuading or failing to persuade groups of all sizes to pursue and achieve excellence in any and all endeavors—are almost wholly dependent upon character traits and personal characteristics that are, in fact, more or less eternal and which unequivocally transcend cultures of every flavor?

Benjamin Franklin's Parisian charm offensive of 1776–77 gained France as an American ally and changed the course of history in our Revolutionary War against England.

Nelson Mandela's extraordinary smile disarmed one and all. ("One of the greatest charm offensives in history" was one biographer's description of Mandela's amazing feat of disarming enemies and allies alike and transforming South Africa without civil war.)

Eisenhower's grin ("something about his big grin," "grin that was to become so famous") united fractious Allies and insured the effective conclusion of World War II in the European theater.

We are confronted at the moment with an economic crisis of epic proportion. There is no better time to heed the eternal lessons of Eisenhower (Franklin, Mandela, etc). Make no mistake, the keys to surviving and thriving, as individuals and organizations, will not primarily be the "out of the box" cleverness of our "strategic response," but instead individual and organizational character as expressed by the depth and breadth of relationships throughout our individual or organizational networks. Current case in point, Mr Pandit of Citigroup is as smart as they come and then some, but, unlike Ike, when he said, "Follow me"—nobody moved, except to cut and run.

American Thanksgiving is our quintessential "family holiday." Giftgiving—for once!—is not the norm, except as it is reflected in exchanges of pumpkin pies and 7-generation-old recipes for turkey stuffing. It is a day in which we even put the likes of sibling sniping on hold and simply rejoice in each other's presence. It is a day, one hopes, when we also reflect on those, numbering in the hundreds of millions, or even billions, who go to bed on less than a full stomach.

The economic crisis? Not much fun. And less fun to come. But this, too, will pass, especially if we can assiduously translate the good will around the Thanksgiving Table and the character lessons of Eisenhower and Franklin and Mandela into our minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day affairs.

Happy Thanksgiving.