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No Trumpets, No Drums: Leadership Lessons From Vietnam

Their fathers’ return from World War II was met with ticker-tape and fanfare. Their own return from Vietnam drew rejection and silence. Today, as they’ve moved from rice paddies to corner offices, what lessons have these Vietnam vets brought with them? To find out, CE looked for few good men.

The generation that was asked to serve in an unpopular war in south-east Asia 30 years ago has arrived in the corner office. Was the experience a crucible for leadership training? Certainly they discovered that rank alone does not a leader make. Merely issuing orders to 20-year-old lieutenants and NCOs didn’t always work, any more than command and control works today. “Troops look to you not only to get leadership, but to get them out of tough situations.” says State Street Corp.’s CEO Marshall Carter, who served as a rifle company commander in the 1st Marine Division and was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart. “You really have to keep your cool under fire. If you show fear or uncertainty, it’s translated immediately down through the unit.”

Harvard management professor Jon Kotter argues that Vietnam veterans have a leg up on other business leaders because they developed the ability to make quick decisions under duress. On the other hand, the acquisition of this skill has made some intolerant of people who are unable to do the same.

In gathering this special roundtable co-sponsored with Tenneco, State Street Corp., and AMI Aircraft (which were represented by Dana Mead, Marshall Carter, and Ed Osborne, respectively), the purpose was to share the transferable lessons of leading people in business-not to relight the war or critique General Westmoreland’s strategy. Participants are the first to admit that martial success doesn’t always translate into civilian life. Winston Churchill, who fought hand-to-hand against the Dervishes at Omdurman in 1898, claimed his early army career with the 4th Hussars toughened him to become an able political and later wartime leader. But Ulysses S. Grant, the victor of Vicksburg who accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, proved an administrative disaster as President. Among the leadership qualities these CEOs say they “found” in the rice paddies or river patrols are confidence, determination, integrity, and cohesion. The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a shared goal. This can either be a CEO or a rank-and-file team member.

BASIC TRAINING FOR LEADERSHIP 

Marshall Carter (State Street Corp.): There are three things I learned in Vietnam that I’ve taken into business. First, a healthy skepticism or even a disrespect for authority. I found in Vietnam that there was always some major or colonel who wanted to send me some place where they wouldn’t go themselves. And there was some feeling that people above the company level just didn’t really know what was going on. The second thing, which we all probably learned, is the ability to separate essential elements from nonessential elements.

Third, I learned a lot of patience. When you give an operations order to a rifle company, you can’t then go execute. You’ve got to wait till the order goes down to the platoon commanders and the platoon sergeants and the squad leaders, right down to the fire team leader level. In business, we see a lot of young, aggressive managers who will give instructions and then proceed to over-manage the situation. They don’t have the patience-the intuitive feeling of knowing when to let some problem develop a little more before they jump on top of it. People have said to me, “Why don’t you tell those two EVPs to solve that problem right away?” I tell them that yes, I could make that decision. But then those EVPs don’t grow, and then they always look to me to make all the decisions. 

Dana G. Mead (Tenneco): I was absolutely fascinated and horrified by the inaction of people in very difficult situations, whether in combat or in moving troops around. There’s an old saw in American business, that most business leaders know what has to be done, but they won’t exercise the leadership to do it. I came out of Vietnam with a kind of cardinal principle of my management style, and that is: “action creates opportunities.” You just can’t stand there and do nothing-you have to go down, up, sideways or whatever. In Vietnam, I saw senior officers who were almost paralyzed in ways that were only hurting the troops.

The second thing I took away is a sense of the uncertainty that competition creates. Somehow, the enemy doesn’t quite cooperate with any of our plans; we all found that out, in a thousand different ways. American business has a kind of an inward-looking feature, and we believe that the enemy or the competition is going to conform to our notion of what they’re going to do. It’s funny how that doesn’t work. And if I ever learned a great lesson to that effect, it was in Vietnam.

I also learned about the value of intelligence. In Vietnam, on the ground, one good piece of information was priceless, because a lot of times you didn’t know what was good, or you didn’t have any, or you had too much. And in business, I think the same is true. We’re living in an age where we’re drowning in information, and the ability to validate it and use it has been extremely useful.  

Jodie K. Glore (Rockwell Automation): One thing I’ve carried with me is the importance of immediacy or speed-the sense that you’ve really got to do something, and the faster you do it, the better off you are. The second thing is accountability the deep sense that you’re dealing with people’s lives and you’re accountable for the things you do.

Joseph B. Anderson Jr. (Chivas Products): The combat experience increased my understanding of my own capability and ability to survive. Many of us, I’m sure, have been in very difficult situations where people all around you are saying, can we get this project done? Can we close this sale? And I’ve always been able to say to myself, these are not even real bullets you’re shooting at me. [Laughter] It keeps things in perspective, and to be able to convey that to my people around me is a significant contribution to their confidence in being able to get the job done and their confidence in me as a leader.

Edward A. Osborne (AMI Aircraft Seating Systems): I think those of us who have been in combat realize that it has the same value a life-threatening illness has. It brings life into focus extremely well, and it helps us keep things in proportion. After that, you don’t sweat the small stuff. You take time to stop and think, “What are the key elements that affect my life?” And we take that into the business world as well as our private lives.

Jeffrey M. Heller (EDS): I was in the fracas early on, so there was not yet much infrastructure, not much support. And ordinary people were achieving things that were just unbelievable. And in reflecting on that afterwards, I realized that the amount of time and energy given to my own personal training as well as training the other people really made a substantial difference.

Beyond that, one of the things that most impressed me in a negative way is that we weren’t all fighting on the same page. I remember early on there were rules of engagement. I’d be talking to people who were pinned down in the field who I could help, and I had to wait on decisions being made all the way back to Washington as to who I could launch with and who had to be observing, and things like that, which gave me a deep appreciation for the way in which bureaucratic red tape can cost you in terms of opportunities and make a difference.

Another thing: In the early days, it was hard to tell who the enemy was. I mean, we got blown up by people who were selling us ice during the daytime, more than we did by armed troops in uniforms marching across a border. And that sort of thing is probably as appropriate to the competitive situation in a changing business environment today as anything I know. 

TRUST AND LEADERSHIP IN THE FIELD

Osborne: Another thing we learned is teamwork-not casually trusting people we work with, but evaluating their skills critically and then putting your life in their hands. Whether it was on the ground, or in my case, making a formation landing and coming down at I90 knots in weather, not looking at the ground but just watching that other plane. You don’t do that rashly. You develop a sense of who you trust and what you can do with those people. And I think that helps us today in building trust in people.

Michael J. Nocera (New York Life Worldwide): One thing about a team is that it’s made up of individuals. There were many times when the team succeeded because one person opened the door to make it happen for the entire team. And if it’s really a team, then it does in fact have this trust so that, in any given situation, somebody will step up and do what’s necessary to make the rest of the team able to accomplish the mission. I saw that over and over again. It wasn’t always the team leader. But the team leader, by developing trust, is building a team of leaders. By demonstrating through your own actions and your own self confidence that difficult situations can be overcome, others see that it’s also possible for them to succeed.

Mead: Leadership came from different people at different times. Americans like to use cliches to categorize people instantaneously and if anything, we learned in Vietnam that you couldn’t do that. Leadership came from unexpected sources. In combat, some people rose to the occasion, and others didn’t.

Carter: Leadership was a part of being in the country. You had high school dropouts or kids who had been drafted, who really looked to you as their link to sanity. You could look around during a firefight, and see those kids, most of them 18 or 19, they’re looking at you to get them out of that bad position, and they’re looking to you for leadership.

Richard B. Lieb (SEI Investment Systems and Services): When I took over my platoon, I had 31 marines, 21 of whom hadn’t graduated high school. The first thing you learn is, you’ve got to earn their respect, and that has carried through with me to this day in business. Secondly, you’ve got to delegate to them and trust them. The third piece-and the Marines here will laugh-is that you have to keep it simple and over-communicate.

Mackey J. McDonald (VF Corp.): The idea of learning to trust was brought home to me in life threatening situations, and I think it’s quite often missing today. Leadership often seems to be [defined as] finding which way the wind’s blowing and then going in that direction and taking your people with you-following the most popular choice. And I think that’s where you end up losing the trust of your people. In the situations we were in, quite often you found that the right direction was not the most popular direction, but one of the toughest directions. But when you end up with the best overall result for your organization, people understand they develop trust.

Phillip R. Rooney (ServiceMaster): You’re setting expectations, and the expectations are consistent. In Marine Corps, it was “Semper Fideles”-always faithful. It wasn’t a matter of sometimes we’re going to be faithful, and sometimes not. When you got into a combat situation, you were trained and you had the discipline to know how to react, and you had the idea that you were always going to be faithful, and that meant something. When the time came, you acted out of instincts and training and discipline, to do the right thing. And it wasn’t “which way the wind was blowing.” The expectation was that you would always be faithful, and that’s what you did. 

BUILDING THE TEAM

J.P. Donlon (CE): In his book on Vietnam, Stanley Karnow points out that after 1965, soldiers came into the conflict as individual replacements rather than in units and were randomly assigned to a company whose members accepted them “without comment.” One recruit said: “I was crushed by the combination of slipping one step closer to combat, and finding no one to pat me on the back and assure me that I would survive. Instead, I found that even my fellow soldiers had no real interest in my welfare.”

Carter: That was a serious problem. Your company would turn over 10 percent or more every month, not counting casualties. The so-called FNG-the “Frigging” New Guy-could get killed in a day or two. The problem was, nobody looked after him even at the squad level.

Anderson: In both of my experiences as an individual replacement, the thing that solidified my relationship with the platoon or the company was what happened in our first action. I was a brand-new lieutenant, and a helicopter got ambushed. I was the closest guy to it and had to get my platoon to move ten klicks [kilometers] at night and rescue this platoon, where there were four out of 25 still alive. Well, when we got there, the NVA battalion that had gotten them was waiting for us. We got out in the middle of this field, and we were surrounded. I’m calling in naval gunfire, I’m calling in airships, I don’t know anything about anything-except that we got out of it alive, and we had only one person get hurt. When you get engrossed in a big challenge or operation and pull it off, the organization rallies very quickly.

R.J. “Zap” Zlatoper (Sanchez Computer Assoc.): The guys in my ready room fought for the other guys in the ready room. They weren’t fighting a national conflict; it was more a sense of family: “I’m going to Hanoi tonight because you went last night.” The question is, how do you do that same thing now in an era when skilled people in organizations are in high demand, everybody’s growing, and we all essentially want the same good people?

Rooney: In terms of unit cohesion, You have to have purpose and know Your role, so no matter where you’re at. If you’re a rifleman or you’re a squad leader or you’re the company commander. You know where you’re at in the Process. That’s key: If you know what Your Purpose is, you can take pride in accomplishing a mission on a much broader basis than if you’re just the new guy on the block who’s come in for the first week and nobody really cares whether you live or die for the first month or two because they don’t know whether you’re going to make it. 

LISTENING TO THE TROOPS

Sen. Chuck Hagel, (R. Neb.): I saw, as all of you did, uncommon valor and uncommon courage from individuals and from corners that you would have never expected it would come from. And one of the things that said to me was, “Give everybody a good look over; give everybody a good chance.” And if you lead them, and if you instill the right values, and if you inspire them, and if the effort is noble enough, let them do their job, and they will surprise you. That has stuck with me for the years since I have been in Vietnam, that there’s always something below the surface. There is always something more than just what it appears to be with each individual. Each individual is wrestling with things in his or her life that none of us always know, and it’s always important to factor that in.

Osborne: Part of all this is stepping back, listening, and watching. And seeing and understanding your people. I believe that every employee comes into work in the morning wanting to feel that they’ve done a good job. Some of that comes from our listening to their ideas. That’s part of having leaders emerge from the team, having valor come up because you don’t know where it’s going to come from. But you have to take time to look and listen.

Lieb: I agree with that. I struggle every day with: “What is really going on in my company?” I know what the numbers say, I live and breathe and eat those numbers. But what the hell is happening? And I relate that back to my Vietnam experience, and my first day in country. I picked up my platoon, and my company gunny [marine sergeant] took me aside and said, “Lieutenant Lieb, listen and trust your Marines; listen and trust your NCOs.” You’ve got to carve out time to go around to people. I want them to feel like they can say to me, “Here’s what’s going on.” And they’ll tell you what your problems are.  

Anderson: The first time I went to Vietnam, in ’66, we had batteries for the radios that lasted, I guess, six hours or 12 hours. Went back three years later, and I jumped all over my radio operator because he hadn’t changed the battery in the time I thought it should be changed. Well, the reality was that, three years later, the batteries now lasted five days, not 12 hours. I wasn’t the smart guy any more. He was. And in my industry, it’s a common joke in factories that the best way to cure a know-it-all supervisor is to do exactly what he or she says. [Laughter]

Mead: I think one thing we all realized is that there’s a fine balance to be drawn between command and empowerment. A lot of things don’t get done unless it’s commanded and driven from the top big time. On the other hand, a lot of things don’t get done unless the troops who are doing it have some empowerment-but they need to know what they’re doing. I like to say that if you have empowerment but they don’t know what the goal is, it’s anarchy. Imagine turning a Marine company loose in the DMZ, empowered to end the war? [Laughter] The fact is, you have to have a combination, and I think all of us in Vietnam, as we experienced feelings of helplessness, feelings of power, feelings of responsibility, and so forth, realized that there is a very fine line.

Nocera: I think a good part of what a lot of us have been saying today is that a good leader’s got to mean what he says-and say what he means. Because how often in our careers have we been in an organization where we get the word that this is what’s going to happen, and the reality of what we were doing had nothing to do with the reality of the war we were fighting? I think it’s important for us to send a clear message, and live by what we say. If we get bad news, it’s not always the troops that produce that bad news. They may be the messengers, but we don’t want to cut out their tongue just because they happen to be informing us about something where our judgment may have proven to be inaccurate. 

TROUBLE AT HEADQUARTERS

Donlon: Much of what we hear about Vietnam has to do with the opposite of empowerment-of the senior officer giving orders that weren’t really grounded in reality. Did any of you experience that?

Hagel: You saw that all the time, and it had a very adverse impact on the mission and the teamwork because there was a very unclear sense of, first of all, what was the mission, and why were we doing this? And was it important? You’d see body bags come back-and for what reason? We had a breakdown in discipline and morale and all the rest because the guys at the bottom didn’t understand exactly what the hell was going on or why we were there.

Edward H. Vick (Young & Rubicam): In Vietnam, the leadership coming down from Washington and Saigon was so totally fucked up, that by the time it got to the field, the fact that anybody could do any good is just beyond comprehension. And then you factor out the guys who were there just to get their ticket punched-the people who were left were actually phenomenal.

 Carter: There’s an issue there for all of us. Which is institutional failure to provide support. I went 98 days without a hot meal or a change of clothes on my first tour. One of my sergeants and I would buy a hundred dollars worth of socks a month for our troops, from Sears Roebuck in L.A. We couldn’t get any socks through the system. The institution failed to support us.

The parallel today? How many times have you heard your sales force say, “‘We’ve got to have laptops?” But somebody in finance says, “These things cost 5,000 bucks a shot. We can’t give the sales force laptops.” Something happens, and the institution fails to support the people in the line, and I’m very conscious of that because of my experience.

Zlatoper: I sit there now in corporate, and we have business in Indonesia and Malaysia and Central Europe, and the people around me say, “What are those dummies doing out there?” I remember when I was in the Tonkin Gulf, and “corporate” was back in -Washington, and they were saying, “‘What are those dummies doing out there?” And my answer now is that they know exactly what they’re doing they’re in contact. They’re dealing with the customers directly, and our job is to support them.

PREPARING TOMORROW’S GENERALS

Dayton Ogden (Spencer Stuart U.S.): There are very few companies in the world that have developed great general managers. They develop great skills, they develop great functional specialists, but you can count on two hands the number of companies that really set about producing great general managers. [In Vietnam] we had enormous responsibility at an early age. But we frequently don’t create those kinds of opportunities within our companies for people until they’ve gotten to the very top of the pyramid. There are some very good exceptions to this, obviously, but very few companies are giving young people a chance to have real responsibility. And until that happens, I think companies are not going to have the talent to do the kind of succession planning that they ought to be doing.

Mead: Traditionally, in the military, [the next leader] is the ranking person on the ground. And in many cases, we’ve seen instances where that person wasn’t the best leader on the ground. But business has some flexibility. It doesn’t have to go to the next ranking person in quite the same way. But it takes some courage for a CEO to go to the board and say, “I’ve got three guys here, they’re all eight years behind me on the train, but they aren’t the ones. This is the guy that you ought to put in command.”

Nocera: In the insurance industry, it’s very difficult to move people quickly through a system or give them large amounts of responsibility, just by the very nature of what has taken place over the last hundred years in the industry. People haven’t moved around. So there tends to be a long line of people waiting for that next promotion, when the guy at the top of the heap moves on. That has a tendency to put people in positions of responsibility later on in life-as opposed to the situations we found ourselves in early on in our careers, where maybe you didn’t know whether you were doing the right thing or the wrong thing, but you damn well had to do something and hope for the best and adapt as you went along.

Mead: We’ve actually written [nine points] down, and said, these are the expected behaviors of a Tenneco leader. And people say, “Now I understand what you mean by leadership.” The other thing we do is give the list to their subordinates. Now, that creates a set of expectations, it puts pressure on them when they don’t act like leaders. ‘We’re reduced to this, right now, because of the fact we just don’t have a generation of young leaders who know what’s expected of them.

William L. Johnsmeyer (Butler Construction): One of the things you were forced to do as a small-unit commander was have a very accurate assessment of what was going on around you. If you didn’t have that assessment, it was pretty easy to get killed or do something that wasn’t particularly healthful for you. I think that what we have to do as leaders now, in order to develop people, is find situations that help people look at and perceive reality-not to delude themselves with what they think is the case, but to determine what really is the case. That means getting accurate intelligence and really working hard to make sure those people see things accurately and are not deceived, like some of our higher unit officers, or Congress, perhaps were during the war. 

APPLYING THE LESSONS

About JP Donlon

JP Donlon is the Editor-in-Chief of Chief Executive magazine.