Eisenhower on Leadership, Sounds like a Lean Thinker to Me


You might think that “command and control” leadership styles are a thing of the past. But, old habits die slowly and many leaders today still seem to have a mental model that longs for a workforce that would “just do what they're told.”

Individuals get blamed, sadly, when things go wrong. We hear comments like “if people would just do their jobs” instead of “what can we do to improve the system so that it's easier for our employees to succeed?”

“Command control” is often considered a military style of leadership, but that's not necessarily the case anymore if you read books like Gen. Stanley McChrystal's excellent book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. General McChrystal realized that, in an increasingly uncertain world, it's important to have engaged people who can think instead of just following orders.

Bad Jobs and Bad Management

I recently saw an article about what sounds like a very uncaring, command-and-control leadership style at Facebook (or within a staffing company that Facebook farms jobs out to): “The Worst Job in Technology: Staring at Human Depravity to Keep It Off Facebook.”

It sounds like this is a challenging, if not traumatizing job. You'd like to think that managers would be aware of that and that they'd be empathetic. It sounds like the managers care more about productivity numbers than the well being of their employees. Facebook requires that counseling be made available and the company says the right things, but does that translate into daily practice?

“[Mr. Tafari, the employee] rarely had time to process what he was seeing because managers remotely monitored the productivity of moderators. If the managers noticed a few minutes of inactivity, they would ping him on workplace messaging tool Slack to ask why he wasn't working, says Mr. Tafari.”

“You're not busy… do something!” That's not really a form of highly-skilled management. That's work that's likely to be done by A.I. in the near future?

What happens when the answer, from employees like Tafari is, “Well, I was really devastated by what I just saw and I needed to take a minute.”

There are also allegations against Amazon (and their delivery contractor companies) in England that say drivers are under such strict and unreasonable productivity targets that they don't get to have any proper breaks and that they're sometimes resorting to urinating in bottles in their vehicle.

How often do we hear nurses and other healthcare providers complain about not having time to eat lunch or having a proper break? I hear about this way too often.

Many of these “bad jobs” situations result from distant managers who are in “the gemba” or the real workplace. They often can't relate to the experiences and the reality of their workers. The managers have targets (often handed to them by higher up leaders) and it doesn't take much skill to browbeat people.

Eisenhower on Leadership

Going back further in time, to a former U.S. president and one of our greatest generals, Dwight D. Eisenhower said the following (as I blogged about here in 2006):

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.”

Setting targets is easy. Setting unrealistic targets is easy (see the examples at the V.A. and Wells Fargo). Setting targets also runs the risk of creating a lot of dysfunction.

Eisenhower is also quoted as saying something that recently stumbled across (reportedly from a book written in the 1960s by a former Ike aide).

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it's usually called ‘assault' — not ‘leadership.'

I'll tell you what leadership is. It's:

persuasion, and

conciliation, and

education, and


It's long, slow, tough work. That's the only kind of leadership I know, or believe in, or will practice.”

“Any damn fool” can say “get back to work.” Real leadership is more difficult… and more rare. Hopefully things will get better.

What Eisenhower describes seems “like Lean” to me.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Thanks Mark, that was an unexpected read — the Facebook piece. But also on point. It reminded me of lean training simulation exercises I’ve used in teaching healthcare people, in which you simulate multiple rounds of a made-up healthcare process. The first round feels awful, stressful, in a very broken process — it feels like failure. In subsequent rounds we teach and guide participants to identify the waste and then implement changes to improve flow and quality as well as patient experience. It feels better of course in each round, but sometimes it’s because the competitive juices come out and participants go at a frantic pace to improve their performance, not believing that the process changes will achieve that for them. We then remind them that going that fast won’t sustain in a real healthcare process, so the point is to implement more changes so that they can both improve quality and flow, and also feel less stressed. We encourage them to talk with their colleagues during the sim — “how ’bout those Patriots”? Sometimes we try to actually measure this impact with staff satisfaction (in the sim), or by having someone role model a patient who then provides an objective assessment — was the experience one of calm and attentiveness, or was the staff in the sim working so fast they could barely take a break if needed or say hello to you? The sim almost always does a good job of proving this point.

  2. There appears to be a link between Eisenhower and TWI as well.

    Eisenhower once said “(…) by leadership we mean the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it(…)”

    Which seems to have a direct relation to the TWI Job Relations statement “Good supervision means that the supervisor gets the people in his department to do what he wants done, when it should be done, and the way he wants it done, because they want to do it.”

    A similar sentence appears to be taught currently by Toyota: “When giving orders to your subordinates to work, the manager should manage in a way where the work intended is done, at the right timing with the right method and have subordinates say that they are willing to do, not with reluctance”


  3. On the other hand, I stumbled across an unfortunate comment from Ike in this article:

    In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren white Southerners “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes” while discussing the desegregation of schools.

    That’s disappointing. It was a different era, but it’s disappointing.

    Lean leaders have respect for all people.

    I was disappointed to see, in my Facebook feed, a post by a well-known Lean advocate who declared President Trump to be “the greatest president of his lifetime” (and he was born during the JFK or LBJ administration, I guess).

    I asked how he could say that given Trump’s long track record of disrespectful words and behavior and he replied “the stock market is doing great.”

    We have to have a higher standard. Character matters. Words and judgment matter, not just tax cuts.

    • I also had some guy on Twitter claim that Trump is a “lean leader.”

      Um, how so? What about respect for people, I asked him.

      His only reply was an article about a company giving $1000 bonuses to employees after the recent tax bill.

      That’s not Trump being respectful.


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