Eisenhower On 'Leading From Within' And The Art Of Collaborative Leadership

The Long March
Then-Major General Dwight Eisenhower at his desk in 1942
Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Being the middle brother was a special burden, or blessing, as the case may be. Young Ike. did not carry the expectations or enjoy the deference of being the eldest. He did not carry any of the usual insecurities of being the youngest. Yet being in the middle, he could, if he tried, empathize with both. His younger brothers looked up to him. His older brothers expected him to follow, and they protected him. Describing a schoolboy fight, Eisenhower noted that:

 ... it took me some years to learn that pounding from an opponent is not to be dreaded as much as constantly living in fear of another.… Not that I didn’t need allies, even then. On my first day of school, Arthur kept an eye on me as I explored the playground. It was not long before a bigger boy, one who seemed to me almost as big as my father, began to chase me… Arthur was as big as my tormentor and after this fellow had chased me around the play yard for what seemed an interminable time, Arthur stepped in and said: ‘That’ll be enough of that. Let him alone.’

Eisenhower’s method was collaborative but not exactly collective. Rather than collective organizing, or leading from behind, he more often led from the middle, or what is frequently called “leading from within.”

What does this mean? In Eisenhower’s case, it meant surrounding himself with collaborators and with an institutional structure that made proactive collaboration the driving force of decision-making and action. It was distinguished, on the one hand, from collective leadership insofar as the major decisions were taken by Eisenhower and not exclusively by a group, and, on the other hand, from community organizing insofar as the process of reviewing and executing decisions took place with Eisenhower as a full participant, rather than as a silent guide or a spectator, appearances sometimes notwithstanding.

He called it “leadership in conference,” which operated in most cases from the general to the specific: when confronted by those with “a tendency to become a special pleader,” he explained, “the subject should be skillfully changed and a constant effort made to achieve unanimity of conclusion, first upon broad generalities and these gradually brought closer to concrete application to particular problems.”

Another way to understand that is to recall Eisenhower’s own recollection of one of his first meetings with Marshall. Marshall looked at him, “with an eye that seemed to me awfully cold,” and said, “Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.” The challenge was to do so in the way that Marshall wanted.

Excerpted, with permission, from Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, by Ken Weisbrode, published by Anthem Press. © 2018, all rights reserved.

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