Jack D. Hunter's Blog

23 Jun 2007

In the last entry I wrote about a magical wink and a smile I, as a kid in knickers, got from Ernst Udet, Germany's second-ranking World War I ace. I was only about 15 years older when I got another wink and another smile that remain with me to this day. This time from one of the all-time biggest biggies in the big leadership department.

"Leadership" is a word you hear a lot these days, what with all the political flapdoodle. And oddly, much of the comment — in high councils and neighborhood chinfests alike — would seem to suggest that the quality of leadership is something a politician wears in plain view, like his nose.

This peculiar supposition stems, of course, from the tendency of our populace to think in audiovisual terms. Motion pictures and television have so possessed us in recent generations that most of us now are inclined to view the world as if we were Hollywood casting directors. Jim doesn't really look like a grocer; Sue is too thin to make a good phys-ed teacher; Lou, with his snowy hair, gentle face, and soft-spoken manner, sure as hell doesn't look like a cab driver; Alfred's blue jowls and heavy eyebrows, sorry to say, suggest he's a Mafia soldier, not the preacher he is.

It would be great, sure enough, if the matter of leadership were so simple as typecasting. The fact remains, though, that leadership is a quality without a face, a talent whose dimensions are elusive.

Obviously, the leader should know his (or her) onions — be skilled and adaptable within the framework of his specialty — be it government, business, the military, science or whatever. Technical savvy is the bedrock of confidence, and confidence is the foundation of "leadership."

But more, the leader needs an X-factor that inspires other people to work together toward common aims, and this is a characteristic that has very little to do with whether he looks the part or whether his subordinates "like" him or not. To be sure, he must show that he cares about his people and their common mission even if they don't particularly like him; he must be just and impartial and courteous and respectful of the dignity of the individuals he unites and leads. But a popularity seeker he ain't.

Moreover, the leader must have courage, self-respect, intelligence, and the ability to face up to adversity and to think clearly when blasted by heat and difficulty. He must understand the limits of his people and not require them to do more than he can do, or is willing to do. He must encourage the crybabies without babying them, calm the impetuous without dampening them, applaud the diligent without flattering them.

All these and a thousand other gauzy strings are woven into the chain mail of leadership. And, although I've been over much of the globe in peace and war — and although I've served in, or with, organizations that range from sandlot ball teams to Congressional committees — the leaders who stand out in my memory seemed the least likely to succeed, if you were to reckon in terms of physical appearance alone.

The best platoon leader I ever knew, for example, was a guy whom Central Casting would most certainly have placed in the role of Mr. Peepers; the meanest and most calculating Gestapo honcho I ever knew resembled the Pillsbury dough boy; one of the hottest of corporate shots I've known was an executive in Connecticut who looked like the farmer in "American Gothic."

I met the exemplar for this phenomenon on a golden Sunday afternoon in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, more than six decades ago.

I was a second lieutenant, with orders to report to Theater Headquarters and assignment to AC of S, G-2, for duty as a counter intelligence officer. I had just arrived in town and had been provided with an apartment, agent's badge and credentials, a jeep, a shoulder-holstered .38 Detective Special, a ration and PX card, and the rest of the day off.

Sightseeing on the taxpayers' gas, I drove idly through the incredibly rubbled city, and after a time somehow blundered unchallenged into the most sacred corner of the park-like compound surrounding the I.G. Farben building, which served to house Eisenhower and the Other Gods In Charge of what was left of Western Europe.

It was nearing supper time, and the sun was low in an orange sky, and no people were in sight. Tired of cruising, I braked to a stop at the foot of the stairs leading to the main entrance of the big yellow structure. I sat there for a time, smoking a cigarette, soaking up the silence, and thinking about that novel I'd write someday.

There was a stirring at the massive doorway and an officer came down the steps in an easy lope. He was carrying a briefcase, and his class-A uniform was ablaze with ribbons and glittering stars. He stopped at the curb about four feet from me, consulted his watch, then gazed directly into my eyes.

I froze. I couldn't even salute.

That man, standing right there next to the fender of my jeep, was the personification of America's national will. He had led 80 skillion troops in the biggest war of all time. He'd dealt with, and brought to terms, the most powerful men in the world. There was talk of making him President of the United States. And he was looking at me and I was looking at him.

And although I was on the edge of throat-catching, reflexive hero-worship, I was struck by a more powerful notion: He looks like somebody's dad, one of those guys in a cardigan and slippers who'd peer over his newspaper and remind me to get his daughter home at a reasonable hour.

Thoroughly confused by this conflict of symbols, I struggled for words, a comment that might bring an immortal reply I could pass down to my progeny. Ears ringing, face burning, the best I could manage was: "Want a lift somewhere, (I almost slipped and said 'Ike') General?"

The Stupendous Dad shook his head. "No thanks, Lieutenant. Somebody's supposed to pick me up." (Pause. Another glance at his watch. A wry chuckle.) "I think."

Seconds later, a GI Cadillac whispered around the corner and came to a creamy halt. And then I was instantly amidst a gaggle of jukebox-size MPs, all shiny helmets and gleaming froo-froo on their chests, who'd pulled up in a jeep and, piling out, demanded to know what the hell the lieutenant thought he was doing in this super-restricted area.

As I was rummaging for my AGO card and my orders and sputtering innocence, The Stupendous Dad waved the MPs off. Then he threw his briefcase into the Caddy's rear seat and, climbing in, paused just long enough to glance over his shoulder and give me a smile and a wink.

The Caddy and its trailing jeep-full of jukeboxes sped off, and, throwing my jeep into gear, I followed them through the splendid landscaping. At the foot of the driveway, Ike went his way and I went mine.

He didn't realize it, of course, but that wave-off of the MPs, that smile and that wink, had won my vote forever, no matter what he would run for, wherever or whenever.

Dad-schmad. I'd cast him as The President any time.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.