Why does character matter?

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander of the European Theater of Operations during World War II and responsible for the success or failure of the D-Day operation on June 6, 1944. The operation brought together the land, air and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in human history. General Eisenhower did not come by this responsibility easily. Some may even say that he was an unlikely candidate to fill this role. It was the General’s steadfast character over a lifetime that led him to the fate of the D-Day operation that launched the beginning of the end of the war.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower with the 101st Division (Airborne) June 6, 1944, Photo by U.S. Army

The D-Day operation was given the codename OVERLORD and delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France. The invasion force comprised of 7,000 ships and landing craft manned by over 195,000 naval personnel from eight allied countries. Nearly 133,000 troops from England, Canada and the United States landed on beaches on D-Day. Casualties from the allied countries during the landing totaled 10,300. By June 30th, over 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had landed on the Normandy shores. Valorous actions by the courageous soldiers, sailors and airmen of the allied forces western front, and Russian forces on the eastern front, led to the defeat of German Nazi forces. Nearly a year later on May 7, 1945, German General Alfred Jodl signed an unconditional surrender at Reims, France.

Persevere with patience
Eisenhower’s journey from modest means from middle America to leading the largest invasion military force in history is largely attributed to his persona. Both nurture and nature played their roles in shaping Eisenhower’s character. He was strong, tough, and big. He was athletic along with a warm grin and sharp intellect. He inherited a strong competitive streak as well as a bad temper coupled with the unquestioning love, discipline and instilled by his parents. Most importantly, Eisenhower’s parents instilled in him a series of controls over his emotions, especially his temper by practicing patience.

In his first twenty-five years in his military career, Eisenhower did not achieve his ambitions within the Army. Notably, he did not serve in WWI following his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point unlike many of his peers. He continued in the profession of arms with persistent employment of one of his characteristic traits, patience.

As a Major, he served as chief military aide to General Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff from 1933 to 1935 who would later become his peer once WWII started. He continued service while assigned to General MacArthur as assistant military advisor to the Philippine Government from 1935 to 1939 and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel while in the Philippines. Eisenhower returned to the U.S. and served in various staff positions finally being promoted to Colonel and then to Brigadier General in 1941.

Trust wins the day
Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Eisenhower was called to the War Department where Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall placed him in charge of plans for the Pacific War. Two months later, Marshall promoted him to chief of the War Plans Division where he received his second general’s star. In June 1942, Marshall sent him to England on a special mission to build cooperation among the Allies as Commanding General, U.S. Army, European Theater. Eisenhower arrived in England on June 24, 1942, and except for a brief stateside visit in January 1944, he was separated from his family until June 1945, following the end of the war in Europe.

Historian Stephen Ambrose in his biography of Eisenhower put it this way, “After Pearl Harbor his star rose, and soon he was in Washington, making war plans for Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and then on to London, to take command of the American forces in England. This threw him into the middle of the great decision-making process of the Allies, at the highest level, dealing daily with Winston Churchill. He proved to be an outstanding diplomat and politician, not only with Churchill but with Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and other Frenchmen as well. He was successful because he was true to his character.”

When associates described Eisenhower, there was one word that almost all of them used- trust. People trusted him for the most obvious reason, he was dependably honest in words and deed. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery didn’t think much of Eisenhower as a soldier, but he appreciated other attributes. “His real strength lies in his human qualities,” Montgomery said.”He has the power of drawing the hearts of men toward him as a magnet attracts the bit of metal. He merely has to smile at you, and you trust him at once.” Eisenhower’s character was formed by heredity and experience. It included qualities of love, honesty, faithfulness, responsibility, modesty, generosity, duty, and leadership tested and demonstrated over a lifetime.

Preparation produces performance
The virtues of character affects the decisions, actions and relationships throughout our lives. I can identify with much of Eisenhower’s story with my experience in working with a multitude of business and military leaders over the last 30 years. I found that successful leaders, meaning leaders who were both effective and compassionate, demonstrated qualities and behaviors much like Eisenhower. It was through a strength of character and a commitment to consistent and continuous improvement nurtured over years that leaders like Eisenhower achieved success. While the basis of character may had much to do with nature and the environment in which one is raised in, I believe that every person can develop their character by studying the lives of others through understanding how they prepared themselves for what life presented them. Much of one’s character is what we are born with, but it can be developed by practice and learning.

About 500 BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that a person’s character is his fate. Some may not agree with it being fate, but I would suggest that it definitely influences with how a person’s life turns out. More than 20 centuries years later, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” It is one’s character that influences one’s life. With each decision we make, each action we pursue and each relationship we foster, we find ourselves moving towards an outcome that is tied to our character.

Character is the difference
Why does character matter? Character influences a person’s destiny. Soon after the war was over, General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated that “Guns and tanks and planes are nothing unless there is a solid spirit, a solid heart, and great productiveness behind it.” If it wasn’t for his spirit, heart and productiveness, the General’s steadfast character over a lifetime may not have led him to be selected as the Supreme Allied Commander of the European Theater of Operations and for the success of the D-Day operation that launched the beginning of the end of WWII.

What do you think are the values or virtues that a person needs for a strong and good character?

Mitch is a combat veteran with a passion to share inspiring stories of virtue tested in battle and enjoys the occasional three-fingered bourbon. Connect with him by subscribing at mitchschmidtke.com for more stories of virtue tested in battle.