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  • Writer's pictureJosh Wymore

1+1: Willing to be misunderstood + Ike's Bluff

Hey there! Here’s one leadership idea and one resource I’ve found beneficial this week:

A grapefruit sliced in half

1 idea: Willing to be misunderstood

As the President tasked with leading the United States through the early days of the Cold War, Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower faced a troubling dilemma. On one hand, Eisenhower wanted to limit national defense spending in order to preserve economic growth. At the same time, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened the US repeatedly, boasting that his country would soon be churning out missiles "like sausages." The Kremlin's saber-rattling stoked American fears of nuclear war and pressured the President to approve $10 billion in new defense spending (a 25% increase) for bunkers and nuclear warheads. 


Thanks to surveillance from a newly-invented spy plane called the U-2 however, Ike knew the Soviet rhetoric was simply hot air. Despite being the first country into space, the USSR's nuclear program was stalling. By the mid-1950s, the US had ten times the nuclear power of the Soviets. But since the surveillance program was top-secret, Eisenhower could not call Khrushchev's bluff publicly without revealing his information source. 


Eisenhower decided to take an unusual approach to this problem: vagueness. When reporters would question him about the US position in the arms race, he would often calmly dismiss concerns without revealing why he was so confident. Many Americans were comforted by Ike's steadiness, but others interpreted his apparent indifference as apathy or incompetence. Ike's approach would make much more sense after the U-2 program was declassified years later. However, for much of his two terms in office, many people simply did not understand the President's rationale. 


LeTourneau University's president Dr. Steven Mason sums up this dynamic in leadership simply: “If you’re going to be in leadership, you have to be willing to be misunderstood.”


When Steve shared this insight with me years ago, I struggled to accept it. I don’t like feeling judged, questioned, or misinterpreted by others. I felt that good leaders deserved admiration and the bad ones earned blame. But the deeper I got into leadership, the more I realized that the correlation between effectiveness and public perception is rarely 1:1. Some popular leaders were actually poor behind the scenes. Others who I disliked from a distance were incredibly respected by those who worked closely with them.


This unbridgeable understanding gap is not just isolated to leadership, of course. Your kids can’t always comprehend why you limit their screen time. Your colleagues may never fathom how much you contributed to that project. And your friends might never grasp why you were so hurt by the offhanded comment they made.


Despite the fact that we all have a burning desire to be understood by others, misunderstanding is woven into the human condition. The sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can find peace and get to the real work.


When leaders fail to accept this truth, they make one of two mistakes. Some try to close the gap between perception and reality by serving as their own PR firms, constantly marketing themselves and their contributions to others. Others go even further and change their priorities to appease those who don’t understand. Either way, the time spent on perception management saps energy away from the most important work they could be doing.


Accepting the misunderstandings inherent in leadership does not mean we tune out criticism or ignore questions from others. Good leaders spend a lot of time aligning expectations and communicating their intentions so others can confidently follow them. But when difficult and unpopular decisions need to be made, they are also willing to be misunderstood for the greater good.

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  • When do you struggle to be misunderstood?

  • Whose approval or agreement do you feel like you need?

  • In these situations, do you need to change your priorities, educate your audience, or simply endure the misunderstanding?


1 resource: Ike's Bluff

After Oppenheimer made a big splash last year, I was curious to learn more about that period in American history. Fortunately, I stumbled onto Ike’s Bluff. In it, Evan Thomas paints a colorful picture of President Eisenhower and his strategy for bluffing the Soviets into avoiding a confrontation with the West. The President shrewdly calculated that the wisest choice was often threatening force without provoking conflict--to talk, but do nothing else. This recurring decision was often misunderstood by his contemporaries. This quote sums it up well:


Eisenhower had retained an unusual capacity, for a man of such large ego (and being president had not deflated that ego), to wait and see--to resist the pressure to act merely for the sake of action or for political reasons. It was a quiet, confident, kind of muscularity.


This well-written and impeccably-researched book was thought-provoking for the very different approach to leadership that it presented.


You can find the book on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Cover of James Clear's book Atomic Habits




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