Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower #2: How to Not Let Anger and Criticism Get the Best of You

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 3, 2012 · 26 comments

in A Man's Life

On the Halloween when Dwight D. Eisenhower was ten years old, his parents let his two older brothers go trick-or-treating, but told Ike he was too young to accompany them. Having eagerly anticipated a night of fun and freedom, Dwight was crushed. He argued his case for why he should be allowed to go out, begging and pleading with his parents to change their minds until his brothers at last headed off into the night without him. Completely beside himself with rage, Ike went into the yard and starting pounding away at the trunk of an apple tree, pummeling the bark until his fists bled. His father finally pulled the boy away, gave him a few swats with a hickory stick, and sent him off to bed. Ike sobbed into his pillow, feeling like the whole world was against him.

After an hour, Eisenhower’s mother came into his room and sat down in the rocking chair beside his bed. She rocked silently for awhile, and then began to talk to young Dwight, telling him she was concerned about his anger, and that of all her boys, he had the most to learn about getting his temper under control. But striving to do so and gaining self-mastery, Mrs. Eisenhower continued, was vital. “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city,” she told her son, paraphrasing the Bible. Then, Ike remembered, she offered him a piece of life-changing advice:

“Hating was a futile sort of thing, she said, because hating anyone or anything meant that there was little to be gained. The person who had incurred my displeasure probably didn’t care, possibly didn’t even know, and the only person injured was myself.”

As Eisenhower’s mother applied salve and bandages to Ike’s wounded hands, she reinforced her point by noting the way in which his heedless anger and resentment had changed nothing and only damaged himself.

Dwight calmed down, apologized for his outburst, and fell asleep.

Eisenhower’s Anger Drawer

While Eisenhower’s parents never brought up his Halloween outburst again, for Ike it was a turning point; “I have always looked back on that conversation as one of the most valuable moments of my life,” he said. Of course, it was not the case that young Dwight jumped out of bed the next day and never had trouble controlling his anger again. When it came to criticism, he was sensitive and thin-skinned, and his white hot temper continued to flare up from time to time, turning his face bright red, raising the hair on the back of his neck, pumping him fill of adrenaline, and rendering him insensible; once he got going, his anger would possess him and he would “blaze for an hour.” Ike could see that these bouts of blind rage would prevent him from ever becoming an effective leader: they wasted his time and clouded his judgment. “Anger cannot win, he said, “it cannot even think clearly.”

And so for many years, Ike “made it a religion never to indulge” in these fits. In addition to applying simple discipline to his emotions, he developed the following method for controlling his anger towards others:

“To this day I make it a practice to avoid hating anyone. If someone’s been guilty of despicable actions, especially towards me, I try to forget him. I used to follow a practice–somewhat contrived, I admit–to write the man’s name on a piece of paper, drop it into the lowest drawer of my desk, and say to myself: ‘That finishes the incident, and so far as I’m concerned, that fellow.’

The drawer became over the years a sort of private wastebasket for crumbled-up spite and discarded personalities. Besides, it seemed to be effective and helped me avoid useless black feelings. The device applied, of course, to things purely personal. During World War II, there was no question of the deep-seated hatred I felt for Hitler and all that he stood for. But there were ways to deal with him other than the drawer.”

Eisenhower had plenty of chances to use his anger drawer during his time as Supreme Commander and later during his political career. During the war, Ike was vexed by the way journalists who, thousands of miles away from the action, and pressured by a deadline, would spin a complex set of events into a simple explanation, often by placing the blame for something on a single individual. “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions,” Eisenhower wisely observed. And the scapegoat was sometimes Ike. “In the stories that began to circulate about me,” Eisenhower wrote about his war years, “I should have seen the ample warning that the printed word is not always the whole truth.”  But armed with his anger drawer, Ike was able to take the criticism in stride and get back to work; when a negative opinion of his leadership came to his attention, “the hoked-up details usually provoked from [him] no more than a grimace or, once in a while, a hearty guffaw.”

My Burn Bowl

Reading about Eisenhower’s method of dealing with his anger towards others really delighted and intrigued me, so I thought I’d try it out for myself. Try as I might not to let it, occasionally something someone says or does can really get under my skin. I’ll find myself angrily thinking about it during the day which makes it difficult to concentrate on my work.

Eisenhower’s anger drawer sounded like a good idea, but having all those crumpled up pieces of paper piling up in my desk didn’t seem cathartic enough. So I gave Ike’s method my own twist and bought an ashtray with a skull on it. I would tear off a little strip of paper, write down the name of the person or the situation that was bugging me, and then burn the paper with a match.

I found that the paper didn’t burn up very well and created a lot of smoke and ash, so now I use little pieces of flash paper (which flames up and then amazingly vanishes altogether–it’s so fun to use I have admittedly almost been hoping for someone to bug me…). One touch of the match—and poof!—the anger and resentment goes away and I smile and get back to work.

Oh, and why a skull? Because as the paper burns, I can look at it, think of my own mortality–my own skull sitting under my skin–and reflect on how pointless it is to waste time thinking about people who don’t matter. I look at that skull and Ike’s words come to me: “Never waste a minute thinking about people you don’t like!”

Somewhat contrived, as Eisenhower put it? Sure. But it’s a great way to break the cycle of pointless rumination.

____

Even with ironclad discipline (after smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for decades, Eisenhower decided one day to quit and never picked up a cigarette again) and the help of his anger drawer, Ike’s temper still flared up now and again. But these little bursts, Eisenhower believed, could be beneficial as long as they didn’t last long:

“A quick explosion, as quickly forgotten, can sometimes be a necessary safety valve. I think my mother might have agreed.”

Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower Series:
How to Build and Sustain Morale
How to Not Let Anger and Criticism Get the Best of You
How to Make an Important Decision
Always Ready

Sources:

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose

At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pat S. June 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm

I remember the account of how Ike treated people who crossed him or disappointed him by using the desk drawer. I thought that was very powerful and he often would never mention the offending party’s name again. Ike had many military detractors, some of whom claimed he was a military leader who never heard a shot fired in anger.

Just goes to show you can make a weakness into a strength and not let it control you. The General sure got the job done.

2 Atul Mathur June 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm

After I began reading this story, I just sailed through it, and in the end, recalled the following quote by Spanish writer Enrique Jardiel Poncela: “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”

I also felt that it had made a permanent impact on me.

This story is also a testament to the power of rituals in our lives.

Excellent work! You are making a real difference in the world. Keep it up, Brett & Kate.

3 GTW June 4, 2012 at 3:08 am

After having some slight stress the last two days, I found the drawer and the burn bowl useful for dealing with stress in general. For me, I just wrote down whatever was bothering me and, upon determining there was nothing further I could do about it, burned it in a tiny bowl I pulled out of a drawer.

Granted I’ll probably do that outside next time so I’m not choking on the smoke of my anxiety all night long.

4 Pete June 4, 2012 at 6:38 am

“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions”

Eloquent and powerful. Love it.

5 Salvo June 4, 2012 at 7:31 am

a very impressive article. I’d likeartofmanliness.com to come up with more articles like these that deal with controlling your emotions and stoicness.

Even more than Eisenhower’s, I found the ashtray with the skull system really damn impressive. The correlation with mortality and finite time is really impressive, I am going to try this out. Like many men, I too have an anger problem and it’s astounding how you think of old meaningless things and people when you are working or doing something that has nothing to do with these events. It’s astounding how we let so many things affect our life, it really is not worth it except to learn something from it, for example it might happen that someone puts you down with a ‘joke’ and you don’t say anything to avoid a confrontation (bad idea) and then after YEARS you still think of what you should have said!
Never waste a minute thinking of people you don’t like

6 Salvo June 4, 2012 at 7:33 am

PS. by ‘bad idea’ I meant that it’s a bad idea to AVOID a confrontation , unless it’s physical (in that case it should be avoided if possible)

7 Brad June 4, 2012 at 9:41 am

Salvo said: “It might happen that someone puts you down with a ‘joke’ and you don’t say anything to avoid a confrontation (bad idea) and then after YEARS you still think of what you should have said!”

I did this for many years, until after making some changes to self I gained self-respect and started to stand up for myself, regardless of the opposition. Suppressing our feelings often only causes more anger.

8 R.J. June 4, 2012 at 10:43 am

Man, I know the reason why so many people liked Ike. I’m beginning o like him too. Such a great, Man.

Thanks for the article!

9 Ted Slampyak June 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Nice article, Brett! I really liked it.

Next time you want someone to annoy you so you can burn some flash paper just let me know, and I’ll miss the next Dim & Dash deadline!

10 Frank June 4, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Great article. Having a tough go of this myself. Upset with some of my co-workers, makes it hard to focus at work.

11 Frank June 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Having a tough go of this myself. Some people at work have really upset me to the point I have a hard time looking at them. May be time for a new job…..

12 Wil Kelley June 5, 2012 at 6:16 am

Great article. appropriate for this time and generation.

13 Gary June 5, 2012 at 9:50 am

Wow. What a great article.

I’ve read a great deal about Teddy Roosevelt. I think I’m going to have to study Ike a little more closely. I already know one interesting fact about his time at West Point. He racked up a lot of demerits and walking tours, and was nowhere near the top of the class. Wit a record like that wouldn’t think he’d get very far in the Army, but he must’ve had something on the ball to make five stars.

I also want to comment on Brett’s remark that suppressing our feelings often causes more anger. All the time I was growing up in the 60′s, the pop psychologists were saying, “You’ve got to let your anger out, or like a pressure cooker it’ll explode!” One day I finally realized there another way to keep things from boiling over. Stop applying heat to it! Quit obsessing over the unfairness of a situation. This epiphany came shortly after I read an admonition that said, “Watch your temper. The emptier the pot, the more quickly it boils.”

Now I gotta get one of those ashtrays.

14 Cam Alexander June 5, 2012 at 10:53 am

Ike was a man among men. A true statesman.

15 Steve June 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

Another great article, it’s relieving to find such a solution.

16 Ryan H. June 6, 2012 at 2:30 am

Great post! I just breezed through this one, and it made me realize that I spend WAY to much time being angry with others and holding grudges, and that gets me NO WHERE! I never really even thougt about it before, it’s just been normal for me. Well, no more.

I’m going to try the drawer technique, only because I don’t wanna accidentally set fire to my office!

It’s amazing just how much men today have to learn from men of the past. We REALLY need to be more like they were.

Thanks for the website, great work!

17 Callum June 6, 2012 at 5:18 am

This is was an inspiring read. I’m a first time poster here on this website and I’ve been reading these articles for a few months now and I want to give a big thumbs up to Brett and Kate!

I’m 22 years old and in the past 12 months I’ve been searching for what it truly means to be a masculine man. I had listened to a copy of He-Motions and was given a copy of Wild at Heart which have totally changed my perspective in a lot of areas and lead me to this great website.

Just recently I’ve been tested in this area of anger. I consider myself a warm and friendly person and have never to my knowledge had an explosive temper, yet the last 6 months have been like a minefield when it comes to dealing with anger and setting boundaries in my current situation. I had to constantly journal how I felt because I was in a bad environment constantly and had two people very close to me betray me and hurt me in ways I never imagined. The trouble was I had to deal with these people at work and in outside activities as well, so what they had done couldn’t escape me as much as I tried to ignore it.

The real testing point was that this was an environment full of women, with men I find you can usually resolve everything much quicker without too much hassle but when stuff has been done behind your back it’s much harder to deal with. In the end I stood up for myself and confronted the situation and I paid a very high cost for doing so, yet the hardest part was channeling my anger in ways that wouldn’t bog me down or hurt other people.

Fred Rogers talks about sublimation quite a bit and his wisdom has been speaking a lot to me lately. Here is a poem he wrote that speaks to the heart and has helped me come out on the other side stronger and more resilient.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_JPEWhV9N8&feature=related

‘Feelings are mentionable and manageable.’ – Fred Rogers

18 Chris June 8, 2012 at 11:53 am

As far as remembering my and our own mortality, thinking of the Universe, and reminding myself we are on a floating rock around a star seems to level set myself.

19 Brad June 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Sadly, it seems we learn these lessons after several decades of mistakes. I know for myself, the older I get the more I have settled down. At 44, I rarely get angry. When I was 2o, I was easily angered. Also, I have finally reached a point where I do not care one bit about criticism. Like me, love me or hate me….I am still me.

20 NorthCalifornia June 10, 2012 at 5:05 am

I know this website is dedicated to manliness, but one definition of manliness is caring for your fellow good man. I’m sure we’ve all heard of the massacre in Syria, and here is live video feed of the assault. Please share.

This link is a live feed of the massacre in Syria. If you care, share this link. If you don’t, then don’t.

http://bambuser.com/v/2731175

21 Bob June 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

Reminds me of Richard Brookhiser’s “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington” Washington also had a problem with his temper that he strove to overcome.
– A lot of standards of masculinity today stem from primitivistic feminist caricatures. The chest-thumping macho showiness and trash-talking of pro athletes weren’t standards that prevailed when men really ran the world. I’m not against equality, but what we have today is a redefinition of “human” in feminine terms. Feminists own the gender discourse, the social sciences lean leftward and feminist, and boys are increasingly raised and educated by women influenced by feminism.
– Testosterone-laced passions are internally brutalizing, as Eisenhower’s account demonstrates. When men ran the world, they preached continence and self-mastery with regard to emotions, passion, and sexuality. An early mention of the theme is the opening of The Iliad– “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles / that brought countless woes upon the Acheans….” It may sound banal to say that men’s passions tend to be more violent than women’s,. This, however, can be interpreted as implying that men are more emotionally vulnerable than women, and if one reads some pre-modern primary sources, this sentiment becomes pretty explicit in places. And it makes sense, when one considers why men tend not to want to talk about their emotions, why men try to avoid them, and why, when they don’t, crimes of passion often occur. The traditional approach to avoiding emotions was more transcendence than avoidance, and orienting oneself toward abstract and other-worldly ideals rather than staying focused on one’s internal experience. (It’s noteworthy that the fundamental intellectual tools of logic, mathematics, phylogeny/taxonomy, and deliberate abstract thinking were products of a patriarchal age. So too were monotheistic religions, and the Judeo-Christian tradition’s model of God’s person that provides the “in His image” model of the post-primitive, empiricist human person.
– Abstract and otherworldly ideals provide a different orientation from hanging out in one’s internal experience. Traditional masculine striving was more a striving against one’s limitations of context, or toward some unattainable standard of perfection than today’s relationalized competitiveness directed at those in one’s immediate vicinity. (Defining oneself in terms of one’s relationships is a feminist thing.) Sportsmanship is one of those abstract ideals.
– Oh, this is getting incoherent. I stumbled here after a sleepless night, and can’t connect the dots. Sorry.

22 Buster June 13, 2012 at 11:26 am

I’ve read that Harry Truman had a similar practice, only he would write letters outlining his anger or upset at a person or a situation–and then stick the letter in a drawer, never to be sent. The act of writing down his anger helped to relieve it.

23 Cialis June 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm

After having some slight stress the last two days, I found the drawer and the burn bowl useful for dealing with stress in general. For me, I just wrote down whatever was bothering me and, upon determining there was nothing further I could do about it, burned it in a tiny bowl I pulled out of a drawer.

Granted I’ll probably do that outside next time so I’m not choking on the smoke of my anxiety all night long.

24 Andrew June 20, 2012 at 11:01 am

I’ll not let my anger get the best of me.

25 mom June 22, 2012 at 5:51 am

Okay, trying to wrap my mind around how a ten year old boy was too young to go out trick or treating–even with his older brothers? His parents sound like todays helicopter parents, afraid to unwrap their precious from its cotton wool.

26 Ed July 3, 2012 at 10:05 am

Anger surely is hard to manage, especially during the heat of the moment. I often find myself punching the wall. Even though it caused some physical injuries, I find it relieving of my anger. Another technique I use is to concentrate on work and don’t bother what others were thinking.

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