The Making of a Leader: Dwight D. Eisenhower

By Carroll, Robert C. | Military Review, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Leader: Dwight D. Eisenhower


Carroll, Robert C., Military Review


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If the mills of the gods grind slowly and exceedingly small, the mills of the War Department seemed to grind to no purpose whatsoever.

--Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories 1 Tell to Friends

THE LIFE STORY of Dwight David Eisenhower as general and president is well-known. Less well-known is the story of how Ike, as a young officer, was given some not-so-elegant jobs that many might consider career-enders, but would later pay huge dividends.

This biographical essay examines his formative career as an analysis of Ike's path as he progressed up (and down) the ranks. It is written from the perspective of how a leader is made, especially in the U.S. Army. Note my conviction that leaders are made, not born (an age-old debate). To take the argument further, Eisenhower's life shows us that great leaders are not only made, they make themselves.

Thus, this is the story about how Ike developed his own professional knowledge and leadership abilities throughout his career. It may inspire the occasional Army officer who faces a career assignment not preordained by conventional wisdom to be on the perfect glide path to greatness.

1890-1911: The Early Years (to age 20)

David Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, on 14 October 1890. His mother reversed his first two names to Dwight David, and he continued that format for life. The family moved to Abilene, Kansas, a few years later. Through his parents, Ike was affiliated with the Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses, and it was both unusual and difficult for this religious, peace-loving family to see one of its seven sons go off to be a Soldier.

As a school boy, he did very well in math and English, but he had a special appreciation for history, which he studied at home. His mother had a sizable library under lock and key, and Ike found the key. He especially enjoyed ancient history. Studying the Punic Wars between the Carthaginians and Romans would help him later in the North Africa and Italy campaigns in World War II. His hero was Hannibal, famous for crossing the Alps with elephants, which later Ike would do in his own way. He was a fine pistol shot, not bad with his fists, and a star baseball and football player. In other words, he was excellent West Point material.

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1911-1915: West Point Cadet (age 20-24)

It was almost by chance that Eisenhower even entered the Army at all. His best friend, Swede Hazlett, talked him into applying to the service academies. At that time, there was just one entrance exam for both the Naval Academy and the Military Academy. While Swede ended up at Annapolis, Ike went to West Point. Ike remained a close friend of Swede, corresponding with him throughout their careers. As president, he attended this retired Navy captain's funeral, illustrating how Ike developed and maintained life-long friendships.

At West Point, Ike was a hard-nosed football player, playing halfback and linebacker, and recognized in the New York Herald for a "spectacular touchdown." As a sophomore, playing against the 1912 national collegiate champions, the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Indians, Ike tackled the legendary Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately, a later knee injury kept Ike off the gridiron squad the next two years and nearly cost him his commission. He was an excellent boxer and wore the rank of color sergeant. An excellent writer, Ike stood 10th in his class in plebe English. He graduated at 24 years of age, 61st in academics and 125th in demerits, out of the 164 in the class of 1915. This was the class the stars fell on: one out of three cadets became a general officer. Ike's graduation came one year after the Great War started in Europe, but to his chagrin, he did not see combat in it.

1915-1916: Second Lieutenant (age 24-25)

At Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in addition to courting and marrying Mary (Mamie) Geneva Doud, Ike performed the routine duties of a new lieutenant in his regiment, the 19th Infantry.

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