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 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2012: Biography

Nothing in Eisenhower’s early life pointed to his brilliant future. He was born in 1890, the third of seven sons raised by a pair of religious eccentrics in Abilene, Kan. With no funds to attend college, Eisenhower made the most of a lucky break — the beginning of a lifetime pattern — when he won a competitive examination for an appointment to West Point, an opportunity usually given to those with political connections.

At West Point, Eisenhower graduated 61st out of 164 cadets in his class, where he was known mostly for his practical jokes and football skills. His early military career was undistinguished until he took a course in the Army’s first tank school and realized the new technology would revolutionize battle tactics. As a result, less than three years out of West Point, Eisenhower was charged with creating the first stateside tank training facility at Pennsylvania’s Camp Colt, where he commanded 10,000 men and 600 officers. There, Eisenhower’s logistical skills brought him to the attention of the War Department.

Smith is adept at painting the picture of this and other episodes that illustrate concretely how Eisenhower learned to be a leader through a combination of management skills and personal and political diplomacy. It was at Camp Colt that Eisenhower first displayed a talent for befriending powerful people, many of whom were his diametric opposites. One of the delights of Eisenhower lies in following the maneuvers of the man’s lifelong campaign to captivate everyone who crossed his path. The egotistical, flamboyant George Patton was Eisenhower’s first major conquest, and Patton promptly handed him another by introducing him to Brigadier General Fox Conner.

Conner wielded immense power as chief of staff to General John J. Pershing, who had led U.S. forces in World War I. Conner became entranced with Eisenhower, and trained him in military history, psychology, and “the art of persuasion.” In a dramatic example of the power of mentorship, he rescued Eisenhower from trouble, intervened on his behalf over and over, and arranged for him to work directly for Pershing.

Luck by all accounts featured prominently in Eisenhower’s career — so much so that Patton declared his initials D.D. stood for “Divine Destiny.” Yet Smith illustrates repeatedly that Eisenhower advanced because he never wasted his opportunities. Under Pershing, he exhaustively studied the battlefields of World War I. He graduated first in his class after winning admission to the exclusive Army War College. His staff work sent him to key strategic posts in Paris, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal Zone. In another lucky stroke, Eisenhower was put in charge of creating a wartime mobilization plan that brought him into contact with financiers and businessmen.

By the start of World War II, Eisenhower had served in the military for 27 years. His career progress was glacial by the standards of today’s wireless world. Yet one of Smith’s insights is that the military’s then rigid promotion system gave its officers experience and authority, which encouraged independence of thought. When George Marshall chose Eisenhower as chief of the army’s war plans division in 1942, Eisenhower was a protégé of nearly every important army general officer, and understood mobilization in a European theater better than anyone.

Smith details Eisenhower’s ascent from staff officer to wartime leader of the Allied forces as a triumph of executive ability, political acumen, and judgment honed through harsh experience of battles barely won. Eisenhower was a weak strategist. His skill at building consensus served him poorly as a field commander, but helped him become a military statesman who held together a fractious alliance that included FDR, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Charles de Gaulle, and a handful of strong-willed generals. The toughest, loneliest decision Eisenhower faced was whether Allied forces should cross the English Channel on June 6, 1944. Smith’s account of Operation Overlord is absorbing both as a military story and as a personal drama. Eisenhower staked his career on the decision to launch D-Day, and it led to the victory that catapulted him into the White House.

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