Great Leaders: Eisenhower and the Pursuit of Small Wins


Here’s a great story about Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Apparently, as he left office, Truman expressed a belief that his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, would become very frustrated because he could not issue orders in the same way that he had as a general.

Harry S. Truman, the American President

Truman had experienced how hard it was to get things done in a government bureaucracy. 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.

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

photograph of Eisenhower and his team
Eisenhower (5th from left) and the team of Allied commanders he led during World War II

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. Eisenhower was effective at leading fair and legitimate decision processes. Eisenhower got to closure through a step-by-step process. He was always inducing debate but then seeking common ground intermittently. He was seeking agreement on small points amid larger disagreements.

Linear or Nonlinear Progress?

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

Effective leaders, such as Eisenhower, pursue an iterative process of divergence and convergence. They stimulate debate, but they are always on the lookout for areas of common ground.

However, my research suggests that the most effective way to achieve closure is not to pursue such a linear process. My research suggests that effective leaders, such as Eisenhower, pursue an iterative process of divergence and convergence. They stimulate debate, but they are always on the lookout for areas of common ground. Those moments of agreement help the group avoid extreme polarization and dysfunctional conflict, and they help build momentum toward closure.

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 toward the end of the process. Andrew Venton and his management team demonstrate an effective process of small wins, ultimately leading to efficient closure. Why are small wins important? In a classic article, Karl Weick argued that small wins are the key to solving apparently intractable problems. Small wins bring new allies together and give people proof that they can reconcile differences constructively. One agreement serves as a catalyst for more productive debates and further agreements down the line.

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 decisionmaking 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 get very anxious, and that interferes with our ability to solve problems. Breaking large, complex problems into smaller parts and then gaining small wins on those parts can be an effective way of dealing with these cognitive and socioemotional obstacles.

From the lecture series The Art of Critical Decision Making
Taught by Professor Michael A. Roberto, Bryant University