The Vietnam War Is History But Teaches a Lesson Every Leader Must Still Learn

Great leadership is about seeing things as they are, not as you want them to be.
The Vietnam War Is History But Teaches a Lesson Every Leader Must Still Learn
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For decades, the American people have tried to ignore the Vietnam War. It was an uncomfortable period of distrust, angst, cultural conflict and protests. Politicians fled from its failures, and the American people seemed content to let its lessons and stories fade unceremoniously into the rearview mirror. It now appears, however, that we might be ready to face Vietnam’s pain, and, more importantly, examine the lessons to be learned from this uncomfortable episode in American history. For example, in September, acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will release an 18-hour documentary on PBS that will showcase this tumultuous period in vivid HD.

My own journey with the Vietnam War began when I read Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (1997) by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. McMaster is President Trump’s National Security Advisor. I was curious to find out what makes him tick. His book is a chilling account of leadership gone awry, and it led me to seek out other books on the subject. I read A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan (1988). Sheehan’s book won the Pulitzer prize in 1989 for general nonfiction and is a masterful account of the Vietnam War. Without diving too deep into the details, both books highlighted several instances were leadership failed, even at the highest levels.

The primary breakdown occurred because a clear majority of those in charge failed to fully comprehend what was happening in Vietnam. Instead of responding to reality, which, incidentally, they were fully qualified to handle, they chose instead to build plans based on hunches and self-aggrandizing plans. Instead of finding and responding to reality, they believed they could manage and shape it to meet their needs.

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The second major problem was that these same leaders had a nebulous relationship with the truth. For some, they didn’t want to see the truth because it was politically difficult. This was certainly the case for President Johnson. In the case of others, personal ambitions clouded their judgment and created biases that led them to provide answers their superiors wanted. Ego was also a huge part of the problem. While many of these leaders were immensely talented, they believed they were infallible. Furthermore, they mistakenly believed that success in one area naturally meant success would follow in an unrelated area of expertise. This is precisely what happened with Secretary McNamara.

For some of the military advisors, institutional biases and beliefs, which had been forged for years, meant they were conditioned to view the world from only one point of view (an American angle), but not from other perspectives. Finally, to top it all off, certain individuals were more concerned about being liked and admired, and for this reason they were unwilling to challenge the status quo or provide the unvarnished truth. In sum, Vietnam was a perfect storm of leadership dysfunction. Very few were willing to face the hard realities head-on.

In his book 1776 (2005), the distinguished historian, David McCullough, makes a key observation about General George Washington that offers a refreshing alternative to what occurred in Vietnam. In writing about Washington’s reaction to a difficult period during the Revolutionary War, McCullough noted, “In truth, the situation was worse than they realized, and no one perceived this as clearly as Washington. Seeing things as they were, and not as he would wish them to be, was one of his salient strengths.” 

This concept of seeing things as they really are, instead of what we hope or want them to be, is the key lesson from Vietnam and represents a mission-critical skill for any successful leader. By the way, the second most important lesson from Vietnam is an easy one -- don’t lie to others, and don’t lie to those you lead.

Ironically, we still see the same issue today. A recent advisor to President Trump was ridiculed when she coined the term “alternative facts.” For most of us, it was easy to see the folly in such a statement. Facts are facts, right? Yet, Vietnam taught me that even well-meaning and talented leaders can have a hard time finding their way to the real facts amidst the alternative ones.

In today’s modern business world, the challenge is fundamentally the same but rooted in a different cause. It’s not about a lack of information; it’s about too much information. Information overload obscures the critical path. While software companies promise to give you dashboards that help you see everything that might be happening in your business, those programs are useful only if they help you see what is relevant. Charts and graphs that visualize data relationships that don’t really matter do nothing more than hide what might be festering underneath the pretty bar charts and the upward trending graphs.  

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There’s another danger, too. Because quantitative data is more available than ever, it’s easy to quickly find information that supports your initial conclusions (i.e., confirmation bias), and then inquiry screeches to a stop. Once we see something that confirms what we believe, or what we want to believe, we often stop looking to see if there is additional information or data that refutes our findings. Data can always be manipulated to support the case you want by excluding information to the contrary. Excluding problematic data from the decision-making process was pandemic in Vietnam, and ultimately fatal -- both figuratively and literally.  

So, what can a leader do to ensure they see things as they really are and not as they want them to be? First, leaders must be vigilant about creating a culture where honesty and candor are valued. Leaders need to teach and demonstrate that honest business intelligence and candid advice is to be rewarded, not suppressed. Vietnam has taught me that I would rather have accurate information even more than creative thinking, because creative thinking is useless if it is formulated from bad information.

Second, leaders can create a culture of feedback. I am not talking about suggestions boxes, nor am I suggesting that leaders should address every complaint. But, your organization should develop methods to gather meaningful feedback. For example, every organization should conduct an annual climate or employee engagement survey. Performance reviews, whether ongoing or annual, should be conducted at least annually and supported by senior leadership. New and innovative software tools give leaders ways to measure employee sentiment. Other applications provide solutions that allow managers to give immediate feedback and for employees to request feedback on a more regular basis. In addition, when resources permit, every manager and executive leader within an organization should be given a regularly-scheduled 360-degree feedback assessment so they can get a candid assessment of what others think about their abilities and behaviors.

Third, independent executive coaches can be an invaluable resource to help leaders gather differing viewpoints. Ideally, an executive coach is more likely to provide candid advice because they can afford to lose a one-time coaching contract as opposed to an employee who might be afraid to lose their full-time job. Moreover, good coaches readily respond to an executive who demands candor and seeks to establish honest feedback as core component of the coaching relationship. If a leader chooses to invest in a coach -- which is a wise investment --  then they should demand complete forthrightness from the coach, and, in my opinion, it’s malpractice for a coach to tell a client only what the client wants to hear as opposed to telling them what they need to hear.

Fourth, while some are skeptical about the value consultants bring to the table, they often add real value when used correctly. Leaders should consider using outside consultants on a regular basis to help them understand if they are seeing things as they really are. My suggestion is to use them regularly in an information audit role. Thus, care should be taken to ensure outside consultants maintain independence from your people and organization.

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While these various tools are useful, they do not mitigate a leader’s personal responsibility to ensure they are seeing things correctly. Every leader, whether a line manager or the CEO, should constantly be asking themselves the following questions:

  • Am I seeing what is really happening with my customers, my team, my department or my organization?
  • Have I created incentives for my employees to distort the truth? (I am talking to you, Wells Fargo!)
  • Have I created a culture that values and rewards candor and honesty?
  • What am I doing to counteract the power of groupthink?

Regardless of your industry or organization, leading is hard. Let’s not make it harder by relying on alternative facts. Washington succeeded because it was more important to know the truth than it was to be viewed favorably. We all need to follow his example a bit more.

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