The title of Supreme Commander is rather intimidating, but it is one that was used to define an American from the small town of Abilene, Kansas, who became the most influential military figure of World War Two. Dwight Eisenhower did not seek out the title, but he defined it by his leadership, intelligence, wisdom, and diplomatic skills.
In The Supreme Commander: The War Years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, historian Stephen E. Ambrose gives a clear and concise account of the war years of General Eisenhower, from the time that he was sent to Europe by Chief of Staff George Marshall until the victory over Nazi Germany.
Ambrose’s account gave me a new appreciation for Eisenhower’s leadership in four areas.
First, I always knew that Eisenhower was a gifted logistician, but Ambrose helps the reader to see how essential to victory was the provision of not only men and equipment, but maintenance and supply lines. An army can only perform effectively if it has the tools necessary to do its mission. Eisenhower gave priority to such planning, knowing that a great deal of flexibility was also needed as circumstances changed. He encouraged his staff to be creative and resourceful as they planned for the unthinkable.
Second, I gained a greater understanding of how he used his personality and “people skills” to deal with outsized personalities like President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, British commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, American General George Patton, and even his mentor Marshall. Eisenhower would not be bullied but stood his ground when he knew that he understood the situation better than anyone else. He was willing to be the “expert in the room” and deal with the forceful personalities that often opposed him.
One way that he did this was to develop a unified team that crossed international lines. The British officers on his staff were treated equally to American officers and became big “Ike” fans. He treated them fairly and welcomed their contributions. Although he tried to avoid making political decisions, his reputation with his British staff helped him to deal with Churchill and other British leaders when his decisions were challenged on political grounds.
Third, although some have said that Eisenhower was not a strategic thinker but only a planner, his decisions during the final assault on Germany showed his understanding of the overall situation and the ability to pursue a master plan. Throughout his time in command, he exhibited his willingness to defer to his commanders and let them exercise their own initiative. At times, he may have been too “hands off” (especially when it came to Montgomery) but his strategy ultimately achieved victory.
Fourth, Eisenhower understood that with command comes responsibility. In both North Africa and Europe, he was ready to accept full responsibility if the invasions failed. He had made the call and he would accept the consequences. This is true leadership.
One comes away from Ambrose’s book with an understanding that modern warfare operates on several levels—offensive operations, logistics, and politics. At the center, however, are men and women who must know how to work with others to accomplish a mission. Dwight Eisenhower was such a leader.