Great Leaders: Eisenhower and the Pursuit of Small Wins

From the Lecture Series: The Art of Critical Decision Making

By Michael A. Roberto, D.B.ABryant University

It’s been said that President Harry Truman expressed concern that his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, would not fare well in the White House. Eisenhower, however, had a strategy that would ensure his success at overcoming any obstacle in his path.

Bust of former U.S. General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Bust of former U.S. General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, located in his home town of Denison, Texas. (Image: Highsmith, Carol M/Library of Congress)
Harry S. Truman, the American President. (Image: Edmonston Studio – The Library of Congress/Public domain)

Truman had experienced how hard it was to get things done as President. He learned that even if a president issued a command, it did not mean that various departments of the government would implement it as he wished.

Eisenhower, as it turned out, was adept at making decisions without necessarily relying on an autocratic style of giving orders. He had been an interesting and unconventional choice as supreme allied commander of the mission to liberate Western Europe during World War II. Eisenhower was not considered a great military strategist, nor had he had the success in the battlefield of other American and British commanders.

This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Critical Decision Making. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

photograph of Eisenhower and his team
Eisenhower (5th from left) and the team of Allied commanders he led during World War II. (Image: Army Signal Corps Collection/Public domain)

Linear or Nonlinear Progress?

However, Eisenhower knew how to pull a team together, particularly one with many strong personalities. He could listen to diverse views, build commitment and shared understanding, and then get to closure efficiently. He was effective at leading fair and legitimate decision processes to get to closure through a step-by-step progression. As a leader, he induced debate but then sought common ground intermittently, finding agreement on small points amid larger disagreements.

Learn more about how to find intermediate moments of agreement

The traditional prescriptive model of decision making suggests that we go through a linear progression of divergence and then convergence. The decision-maker then would diverge in the early stages of a decision process, gathering as many diverse perspectives and views as possible. Finally, you would try to converge the ideas, narrowing down the options and coming to a decision.

Pursuing Small Wins to Achieve Cohesion

Small wins are the key to solving apparently intractable problems.

The idea is that leaders should pursue small wins throughout the decision process, rather than waiting to converge options toward the end of the process. Why are small wins important? In a classic article, Karl Weick argued that small wins are the key to solving intractable problems. Small wins bring new allies together and give people proof they can reconcile differences constructively. One agreement serves as a catalyst for more productive debates and further agreements down the line.

My research suggests that effective leaders, such as Eisenhower, pursue an iterative process of divergence and convergence. Like our former President, they stimulate debate but are always on the lookout for areas of common ground. Moments of agreement help the group avoid extreme polarization, dysfunctional conflict, and help build momentum toward closure.

Learn more about how to look for and eliminate dysfunctional conflict

Small Wins Can Overcome Complex Problems

Two obstacles are overcome by a small wins approach: One is cognitive, and the other is socioemotional in nature. The cognitive obstacle in many complex decision-making situations is that individuals experience information overload. Ambiguity and complexity become overwhelming. The socioemotional obstacle is that many decision makers experience frustration, stress, and personal friction during complex situations. Weick also points out that we match our capabilities to situations; if we sense a mismatch, then we can become anxious. This interferes with our ability to solve problems. We can gain small wins by breaking large, complex problems into smaller parts as an effective way of dealing with these cognitive and socioemotional obstacles.

Learn more about groupthink

Common Questions About Small Wins and Decision Making

Q: What are small wins?

Small wins divide large goals into smaller portions, often by setting milestones along the way such as finishing the proposal for a big project.

Q: Why you should celebrate small wins?

You should celebrate small wins because it is easy to feel overwhelmed by large tasks, or in the case of decision making, by seemingly insurmountable points of conflict. Achieving small wins can give you positive momentum.

Q: Why are small wins important in the decision making process?

Small wins are important in the decision making process because they can help those involved to achieve harmony and give them the confidence they need to keep progressing toward their goal.

Q: How do you celebrate progress?

After accomplishing small wins, everyone involved in the decision-making process should celebrate their ability to come to a consensus and reflect meaningfully on the impact of this consensus, while at the same time keeping expectations in check and acknowledging that there is still negotiating to be done.

This article was updated on August 15, 2019

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