On December 19, Dwight D. Eisenhower called a conference with his senior generals including Omar Bradley and George Patton.
With potential catastrophe looming over the meeting, Ike, according to his book Crusade in Europe, began the conference by saying, “The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.” Michael Korda described the reaction in his book IKE: An American Hero: “Patton, who grasped Ike's strategy intuitively, smiled broadly and said, ‘Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris, then we’ll really cut ’em off and chew ’em up.'”
That was more opportunity than Eisenhower was looking for, but all the generals smiled, recognizing the possibilities.
Despite the immense American casualties to that point in the battle, and despite the Germans’ smashing success, Ike demonstrated the qualities that made him a great leader. He refused to panic and made the tough decisions that would allow him to stop his competition’s progress and deliver his own smashing blow:
- He called out all of the supply troops and engineers and ordered them forward to the river Meuse to establish defensive positions, which had the effect of increasing available battle troops while improving defensive options.
- Ike decided and issued orders that the Americans would not retreat beyond the Meuse—no matter what it took to accomplish that.
- The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would hold two key towns in the Ardennes. The 82nd would protect Stavelot with its access to a large number of fuel and supply dumps. The 101st would protect Bastogne, a small town with crossroads that both sides needed urgently—it was the key to the entire battle.
The above were the necessary decisions to prevent the Battle of the Bulge from becoming a runaway success for the Germans. But what marked Ike’s greatness is that he wasn’t content with stopping the Germans—he was determined to convert the Bulge into an American victory.
The following decisions made that possible:
- Reserve forces would be deployed strategically in counterattacks (instead of used as replacement troops).
- Ike ordered Patton, moving from the south, and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, moving from the north, to encircle the Germans. He planned to cut off the Bulge and to capture and destroy the enemy troops within.
Every one of these decisions worked out as Ike planned, and the American victory at the Bulge was devastating to the Germans. Never again would they mount any kind of effective resistance. Every one of these decisions was made during the early phase of the battle, when an American defeat seemed very likely and the pressure on Eisenhower was crushing.
Eisenhower's decisions in the worst moments of the Battle of the Bulge demonstrate two important points for all leaders: Don't panic, and grab opportunity.
As the economic recovery stumbles along, if you need to make tough decisions regarding your workforce or the expense side of your budgets, do it, and do it fast. But remember, that’s just the first part of a 1-2 punch. Look for the opportunities presented by the current turbulent times and take advantage of them. Treat the people who’ve stayed with you through the recession as well as you can, as quickly as you can. Recruit new people where necessary. Launch a new product or service line. Test innovative pricing models. Invest in technology and R&D.
Lots of businesses hunker down when times are tough, hoping to survive. Organizations that prosper have leaders whose thinking goes way beyond hunkering down. They are like Ike at the Battle of the Bulge, going after the competition aggressively, stealing victory from the jaws of defeat.