My blog yesterday about the bond among men who fight side by side made me think again about the guys who were with me at the end in Vietnam in April 1975. We weren’t combatants, but we faced the fall of Vietnam together. Each of us contributed to the survival of the rest. The bond among us was the same love that men in combat share.
Starting in 1974, I was the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) covert operation in Vietnam. Our mission was to inform the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, of what the North Vietnamese were up to, based on the intercept of their communications; and to assist the South Vietnamese government in its own efforts against those communications. I had 43 guys and one woman (my secretary) working for me. They were communicators, signals intelligence specialists, intelligence analysts, personnel specialists, and couriers.
I had long since learned that leadership works where management fails. You lead people; you manage things. I saw my job as enabling my subordinates to be the best they could be. All of them were experienced professionals. I didn’t need to tell them what to do. I needed to support them while they achieved remarkable results.
As soon as I arrived on the job, I held a meeting with all my guys. I told them that, unlike predecessor, I wasn’t going to keep track of what they did during their time off. I knew that they—the ones there without their families—partied and drank and whored around, like all young men everywhere. I instructed them to come to me if they got in trouble before the U.S. embassy got involved. I was there to help them, not control them.
I couldn’t have started better. The men were devoted to me and outdid themselves on the job. Never even once did I have to deal with an incident caused by one of my guys. As the fall of Saigon loomed, they worked harder and longer hours. Some even slept in our office suite to save time.