A Pathways Leadership Lesson from WWII

Do you have your leaders deployed where they can do the most good or the most harm?

This week I’ve been doing some school consulting visits in New Orleans, and I took a break to visit the National World War II Museum.  It was an incredible experience.

This visit brought to mind an important lesson about leadership I learned in reading two books about key figures in World War II.  One book was “Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith, and the second was “Brothers, Rivals, Victors” by Jonathan W. Jordan.

Here’s the lesson I discovered –

  • Great leaders who are deployed in the right role can do great good, but the same leaders deployed in the wrong role might do great harm.

This truth really played out in the differences between General Dwight David Eisenhower and his friend General George S. Patton.  Eisenhower was a genius logistician and had excellent strategic thinking and alliance building skills.   Even though he longed for battlefield command experience, the experience he had was not inspiring, and most of his career was spent in planning and staff leadership roles —  roles that coordinated the work of multiple forces.  When the U.S. entered WWII, there was a critical need to coordinate the forces and efforts of multiple nations fighting to defeat the German-Italian-Japanese Axis.

Eisenhower was bestowed the title of Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but he privately joked that the title was a farce.  He said he wasn’t really commanding anyone and he wasn’t supreme.  Rather than supremely commanding, he was coordinating and communicating with the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, the U.S. president, the British prime minister, and all the chief commanders from the allied forces. He was also responsible for keeping some level of coordination with Soviet Russia’s forces, and then had to also untangle the rivalries among the French nationalists.  Rather than commanding, he was tasked with building consensus.

Eisenhower was not known as a very good battlefield commander, but he had excellent interpersonal, political skills that were essential for the allies to work together and to be successful.

Patton, on the other hand, was a daring, brave and relentless battlefield commander, and led a number of historic campaigns.  But he had terrible judgment and a propensity for angry outburst and amateur gaffes.  If he had been given the role that Eisenhower played, the alliance could have fallen into complete disarray.  Even Omar Bradley, who was a great battlefield commander and had good interpersonal skills and judgment, still had a deep distrust and rivalry with the British that would have precluded him from the cross-alliance role.

So I would suggest to you, think about your leadership team and ask –

  • Who are my Patton and Bradley battlefield commander types who can buckle down and get the tough work done – even if they don’t “play well in the sandbox”?
  • Who are those Eisenhower-type leaders – still results oriented,  but who have the empathy and interpersonal skills to build the inter-district and cross-systems partnerships that really bring synergy to the pathways system?

Take time to identify each individual’s natural strengths, shore up their weaknesses as much as possible, and then see if there is a role that plays to their innate strengths.

In the end, you need both your Eisenhowers and you also need your Pattons!

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions.  (www.nc3t.com).  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

One thought on “A Pathways Leadership Lesson from WWII

  1. Jonathan W. Jordan says:

    Hans – That is an admirable summary of one of the leadership structure lessons of World War II. We can be thankful that all three ended where they ended (which is, as you know, not the trajectory they were on in mid-1940!). – Jon Jordan

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