Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D.

Eisenhower. -- Contrasts in Leadership


Colonel John Osgood, Retired (c) 1998

This paper will discuss the strategic leadership strengths and weaknesses of Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The primary source for biographical information was Commander in Chief by Eric Larrabee. For contrast I relied on William Manchester's biography of MacArthur, American Caesar, and Eisenhower at War 1943-1945 by David Eisenhower.

Larrabee's description of Eisenhower is mainstream -- the consummate staff officer and master of compromise, yet a brilliant tactician and strategic thinker in his own right. His treatment of MacArthur is less favorable. He attempts, through anecdotes, to undermine what he sees as "myths" of greatness. Ironically, some of the faults he attributes to MacArthur are part of the intangibles of strategic leadership that escape Larrabee (e.g. psychological importance of the Philippines). He does not seem to fully appreciate the significance of charismatic command and military genius, both of which were MacArthur major strengths.

Clausewitz says that military genius is "... all those gifts of mind and temperament that in combination bear on military activity." He calls it a "harmonious combination of elements." Accordingly, the critical elements are intellectual power, courage, presence of mind, energy in action, staunchness, strength of character, sense of locality and imagination, all working in concert -- an apt description of MacArthur's traits and leadership style.

Current doctrine is more modest, preferring to define the successful leader as one with highly developed "strategic" skills. FM 22-103 describes the person as one with broad conceptual vision and potent communicative proficiency who quickly and decisively sets the tone for a command and gives it a sense of strong moral and ethical purpose and direction (Eisenhower's methodology as Supreme Commander). Information flows freely, initiative is encouraged and there is a real interdependency between subordinate elements of the organization. The objective is to create what doctrine describes as favorable conditions for "sustained organizational success to achieve the desired result."

While terminology differs, there are recurring themes common to all treatises on leadership. This is true with civilian theories as well. For example, Gardner in On Leadership identifies nine "tasks" he sees as the most significant "functions" of leadership. Kouzes and Posner identify five "practices" which they contend involve ten "behavioral commitments" which, when properly applied, will bring out the best in a leader. See Kouzes, James M and Posner, Barry Z., When Leaders Are at Their Best: Five Practices and Ten Commitments.

Both Eisenhower and MacArthur achieved unprecedented success as strategic leaders, even though their temperaments, styles, and backgrounds were dramatically different. MacArthur, first in his class at West Point, was an ardent student of military history. He was a decorated World War I combat veteran with a reputation for being courageous under fire (Manchester discounts the "Dugout Doug" disparagement as fictional). At the start of World War II, he was a recognized expert on the politics and geography of the Far East (Clausewitz's "sense of locality"). As to his personality, Manchester refers to him as a "... great thundering paradox of a man, nobel and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, [and] arrogant and shy." He was a man who could be extremely paranoid and distrustful even of his own staff. Yet Manchester says he craved attention and "... appeared to need enemies the way other men need friends." His penchant for defiance and obstinacy are well known, dating to his disobedience of Roosevelt's orders during the veterans' riots in Washington, D.C., and culminating in his relief from command in Korea. He demanded excessive loyalty from subordinates and did not necessarily pick the most capable officers for key subordinate positions.

If Larrabee's views, are correct, MacArthur's most troubling character flaws were his occasional ethical lapses, occasional misstatements to his superiors and the press, and occasional bouts of outright insubordination. One of the key things followers look for in leaders in absolute honesty. The detrimental effect of perceived lack of honesty is cogently illustrated by the account in the readings of the General Harkins matter during the Viet Nam War. It demonstrates the cancerous effect such practices can have on a command.

Eisenhower was, by all accounts, an affable, easy going, quiet individual with a strong staff background who, according to Larrabee, purposely tried to conceal his "icy" intelligence. He spent most of his early career as a staff officer, although he often actively sought command. He and Patton were early proponents of armor and he displayed remarkable foresight in terms of its potential on a mobile battlefield. Roosevelt and Marshall recognized his unique talents as a staff coordinator and planner and began immediately to groom him for ultimate command in the European theater.

Both Generals were inspired leaders with extraordinary vision. MacArthur's support for an island hopping campaign, his resistance to the invasion of Formosa and his insistence on the retaking of the Philippines were key factors in the successful campaign against Japan and resulted in significantly reduced casualties, according to Manchester. Eisenhower's biggest challenge in Europe was maintaining command independence in the face of strong opposition and, at times, hostility by Montgomery to his policies and right to command. His planning and execution of Overlord, his refusal to yield to the British urging for the "single thrust" attack on the continent, and his ability to make the coalition of allied forces work in harmony were among his greatest achievements. Larrabee quotes Roosevelt who purportedly said: "He is the best politician among military men. He is a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him..."

Kouzes and Posner would describe him as one who shared a vision (the conquest of Germany by combined allied forces), challenged the process to implement that vision (innovative planning and calculated risk taking in the tactical conduct of the war), and created a climate in which others could act (fostered collaboration among sometimes bickering allies).

It is difficult to fault Eisenhower. He unquestionably was the right man for the right job. Perhaps his single two biggest failures were approving Market Garden to appease the British, even though he doubted its wisdom (lapse in integrity), and not taking a firm enough stand on the Russian question and the division of Europe (poor long range vision and judgment).

Full Military Biography
Other articles I have written

  Also see