In Saigon in April 1975, as conditions worsened and the enemy got closer, I regularly reported to the ambassador on North Vietnamese plans to attack the city. He didn’t believe my warning and forbade me to evacuate my people. So I cheated and lied and stole to get my men and their families out of the country before the attack began. I sent them out on any ruse I could think of—phony family leave, trumped-up vacations, fake business travel. Toward the end, I bought a ticket on Pan Am with my own money and, with no orders or authorization, put one of my guys on the plane and told him to go. That turned put to be the last Pan Am flight out of Saigon.
By the time the North Vietnamese launched their attack, I had gotten all the families and 41 of my subordinates out of the country. The two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end and I were holed up in our office when the North Vietnamese started shelling us. After the enemy was already in the streets of the city, I got my last two guys out on a helicopter. I escaped that night under fire.
For decades, I was smug that I hadn’t burdened my men with the knowledge that the ambassador had forbidden their evacuation. I had spared them that terror. Then, about a year ago, I had coffee with one of my communicators. As we reminisced about the old days, he told me that he and all the other guys knew about the ambassador’s order not to evacuate. They had learned what was going on from the eyes-only messages I was sending the National Security Agency Director, General Lew Allen, to keep him informed of what I was doing. My communicators had to type and send those messages. They quietly let the others know what was going on. My attempt to protect them from hurtful information had failed. As it turned out, their knowledge of their predicament strengthened them and fortified their resolve.
I should have known better. I had violated one of my own principles of leadership: never withhold relevant facts from the followers. I had quite consciously decided to deceive my guys for their own good. They outfoxed me. Their knowledge proved that the principle was correct. I’d managed when I should have led.