Q&A: Geoff Loftus on Leading Like Ike

November 9, 2010

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In this Expert's Corner, IMT speaks with Geoff Loftus, whose recent book Lead Like Ike finds valuable management strategies in Dwight Eisenhower's leadership methods during the D-Day invasion.

The D-Day invasion was a massive military operation and a pivotal moment in world history, but it was also an example of strong organizational leadership, according to Geoff Loftus, vice president at the Gregorian University Foundation and a lifelong history buff.

In his book Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day, published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. earlier this year, Loftus analyzes General Dwight D. Eisenhower's military operations as business operations, and the commanding general as CEO, ultimately finding management lessons for contemporary corporate executives.

In this Expert's Corner, Loftus lays out how Eisenhower's role as the commander of Allied forces on D-Day offers important lessons for business leaders juggling the needs of many stakeholders, multiple project requirements and an ever-changing work environment.

IMT: What inspired you to research not just General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his role in D-Day, but also the practical applications relevant to today's business leaders?

GL: Actually, it was the practical applications for today that inspired me. Here you have what Winston Churchill called "the most difficult and complicated operation ever to take place," and it seemed to me that as businesses emerged from the "Great Recession" there were an awful lot of lessons to be learned from Ike's leadership.

No one has ever managed a higher-stakes operation in history than Eisenhower did at D-Day. Literally millions of lives were at stake. If he could succeed despite those pressures — and he did, magnificently — business leaders should be taking notes from his playbook.

IMT: Leadership becomes especially crucial during periods of uncertainty. As the global economy gradually recovers from the downturn, what do you see as the key qualities that strengthen employees' confidence in their leadership?

GL: The key qualities, both of which were obvious in Ike's character: concern and honesty. Eisenhower demonstrated his concern for the troops over and over by talking with them face-to-face, asking them about their hometowns, talking about football and fishing. He also made sure that enlisted men were treated equally well in terms of captured supplies and recreational opportunities.

As for honesty, Ike never lied to anyone under any circumstances. That included taking the blame when things went wrong. Nothing empowers employees like knowing that their boss really and truly has their backs — no matter what.

IMT: What practical lessons can managers and business owners glean from Dwight Eisenhower's ability as a leader and apply to everyday business operations? Have these lessons of generalship changed in the wake of the economic downturn?

GL: To answer the last question first, no the lessons haven't changed. As I noted earlier, Ike's story is one of leading under extreme pressure in a very hostile world — exactly where many contemporary business leaders find themselves.

For me, the lessons all come back to one thing: Ike's character. He wasn't a great leader because he was smart (although he was) or tough (ditto) or committed (ditto again), but because he was a great man. He believed in what he was doing, he believed in the value of his people, and he was honest at all times. Those personal characteristics are difficult to measure in terms of ROI, but without them you're left with Tony Hayward's style of leadership at BP this past summer. Executives may not have the kind of deep commitment that Ike did, but they can act as if they do. And being honest is something people should have learned at their mothers' knees.

IMT: Are the strategies that shape success in planning and carrying out a military operation applicable to, say, planning and implementing a new business initiative? Or should we be looking at more abstract principles, such as worldview and philosophy, to derive instruction?

GL: Operation Overlord (the official code name for what most people call D-Day) was a new business initiative. No one had ever attempted an allied-force invasion on the scale of Overlord before. The supply chain stretched across the Atlantic Ocean and across the United States all the way to California munitions plants. Troops were trained all over the United States and England, and then brought together at exactly the right moment, many of them accepting their freshly manufactured equipment as they departed for the invasion. The strategic plans for the invasion took a large staff of generals and admirals 18 months to compile, and had minute-by-minute timelines to cover the activities of more than 150,000 men, 11,000 aircraft and 5,000 ships (the largest fleet ever assembled in history).

And, like any CEO of a new business, when Ike began the work that resulted in D-Day, he had no organization to pull it off. He had to understand his mission thoroughly so that he could design and then build the company that could pull off Overlord.

IMT: Eisenhower was both hindered and helped by his relationships with other U.S. generals and Allied military leaders. Do you believe that tension or contrary opinions between rivals — or between managers and subordinates — can be fruitful? Is it more important to maintain divergent views within an organization or to reconcile them?

GL: It's definitely more important to maintain divergent, and honestly held, views. The leader's job is to take in the different points of view, the different creative impulses, and then make an informed decision as to what is the best way to fulfill the organization's mission. Ike did this extremely well — the problem he had was that some of his generals were unhappy with his final decisions. Then the challenge, for Ike or for any decision maker, is to ensure the unhappy folks keep contributing their views and ideas.

IMT: You write that corporate executives have frequently made decisions that have not been strategically sound in order to produce short-term value for shareholders. Do you believe these decisions will come to define the future of American business, and if so, is that a bad thing?

GL: I think this kind of decision-making has defined American business for the last 10-20 years, and, in my opinion, it's a terrible thing. Why terrible? It shows a complete lack of focus on corporate mission. Many CEOs and boards of directors think that their organization's mission is to make money. Again, it's just my opinion, but making money is never the mission. Making money is the result of fulfilling your mission, whether your mission is to make a product or deliver a service. If you do that well, you'll make money.

Eisenhower never forgot his mission (to beat the Germans) and never lost sight of all his stakeholders: his soldiers (employees); the citizens of the United States, Britain and the other allies (shareholders); and the people of occupied Europe (the communities his organization served). If corporate leaders follow Ike's model, they will produce long-term value for shareholders and for their employees and communities. And that's not bad at all.

Geoff Loftus is a lifelong history buff and the author of Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day (Thomas Nelson, Inc.). A regular contributor to Forbes.com, he is currently vice president at the Gregorian University Foundation and has been employed in business journalism and corporate communications for more than a quarter-century. Working both freelance and on-staff, he has worked for Condé Nast, Deloitte Consulting, Fairchild Publications and News Corp., as well as nonprofit organizations such as The Conference Board and the Society of Corporate Secretaries & Governance Professionals, where he was vice president of communications.

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