Monday, January 13, 2014

Leadership from The Class the Stars Fell On.

Inevitably with the new year upon us we are hearing more about politics.  The 2014 mid term elections are heating up and there is a steady increase in chatter about the 2016 Presidential race.

Of course people are musing on just what makes an effective leader, a subject I have touched on once previously  Help Wanted, President.

My general feeling was that prior practical experience would be an excellent predictor of later success, and that is probably true overall.  But history always teases us with exceptions, and regarding Presidents we have to make room for Abraham Lincoln, the Great Exception.  I mean, who would predict that a relatively unknown fellow from Illinois, who served two years in Congress and frankly was a bit homely, would become one of the great leaders in our history?  (my conservative friends may now indulge in whatever "went to the well once too often" thoughts that they wish).

But The Railsplitter is not the only exception to the usual logic.  When considering successful Presidents I did a little side thinking on a related topic:  How high can a person rise in the military without ever commanding troops in combat?

I think you can go about as far back as matters in the sense of a modern military and find very few men who rose to supreme command without spending some time early in their career slogging along with Grenadiers or Doughboys; without sleeping in drafty tents; without on occasion having some hot lead sent in their general direction.

But a quick survey...

Napoleonic Wars.  Nah, France and England had been squabbling for so long that Wellington, Napolean and pretty much everyone else had seen combat first hand.

American Civil War.  There were a few "political generals" in subsidiary commands.  Most of them were incompetents, a few like Ben Butler were not.  But virtually the entire upper command echelons of both armies had fought in The War with Mexico.  Even the chief generals in that brush fire conflict had served valiantly in the War of 1812.

In World War I  it is virtually impossible to find a single general of any importance who had not seen combat either in sundry colonial wars or in the Franco Prussian War of 1870.  And in World War II pretty much everyone wearing stars had seen combat in The Great War*. With one enormous exception:

Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Despite his eventually becoming a Five Star General and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Ike never served in combat.

You might think this implausible.  He was after all a member of the West Point Class of 1915.  This is referred to as "The Class the Stars Fell On" because no fewer than 59 of the 164 graduates of said class went on to attain at least the rank of Brigadier General**.

It is not as if Eisenhower was a dullard.  His class rank of 61st was quite respectable.  And it is not as if he were trying to avoid combat. (My progressive friends may now indulge in G.W. Bush witticisms if necessary).  He begged to be sent to France in World War One.

No, Eisenhower had a bad knee from a sports injury.  It initially relegated him to various staff jobs. At which he proved so remarkably competent that the military decided he could not be spared.  There were already plenty of brash young officers willing to charge into the barbed wire. (Three members of the 1915 class died "over there" all as Majors, but one seems to have succumbed to influenza).

I suppose my general theme regarding Presidents is that prior executive success predicts later competence.  And in this respect Eisenhower is a prime exhibit.  Our history is the better for him not stepping in front of a bit of shrapnel in 1918.  He continued to demonstrate the ability to both organize the things under his direct purview and to interact well with those whose independent interests could either help or hinder his tasks.  D-Day in 1944, one of history's biggest organizational challenges was his Supreme accomplishment.

Some people are just better executives than others.  And it is not just a matter of pure intellect.  If you want an example of just how far academic achievement "won't" take you, consider the man who graduated 1st in "The Class the Stars Fell On".  It was a certain William E. R. Covell.  He does not even get his own Wikipedia page.  His military accomplishments?

He did get two stars while serving, no doubt capably if unheroically,  as "Director of Fuels and Lubricants, Office of Quartermaster General" and later as commander of "Supply Services" in the China-India-Burma Theater.

*In the case of Russian Generals I give credit for service in the Revolution.

**Wikipedia claims that this is the highest percentage (36%) of any class that attained at least one star.     Not true. The class of 1843 had 16 future generals among its 39 members (41%). One of them was   U.S. Grant, excellent General and lousy President.

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