My Predecessor in Saigon

A recent exchange with one of the guys who worked with me in Saigon reminded me of the problems I had when I first arrived in-country. My predecessor, something of an autocrat, had tried to compel his workforce to act like country gentlemen while working in a war zone. He insisted that they all wear ties to work, even though no other American government office in Saigon followed that rule—in a tropical climate, short-sleeved dress shirts with an open collar was standard. He also demanded that that these young bachelors (only a few were married) live lives of decorum and genteel propriety. No wild parties, no consorting with local females, as little alcohol as possible. After the guys regularly disobeyed him, he had his security office tail them and surreptitiously surveil their dwellings.

One of the first things I did when I took over was to have an all-hands meeting. I told the guys no more ties. Even I didn’t wear one. I asked them to stay out of trouble, but if they did run into a problem to let me know before word got to the U.S. embassy, and we’d work together to straighten things out.

I had learned long before that to be a success, I had to be a leader, not a manager. You lead people, and you manage things. I let my people know that I was there to do all I could to help them excel in their work. My job was to lift them, not hold them down.

I never had a single problem. My men, who were already experts at their jobs, worked harder than I had any right to expect. They routinely put in twelve-hour days, just as I did. As the fall of Vietnam got closer, we were working seven-day weeks and sometimes sleeping at the office. Their achievements in detecting what the North Vietnamese were up to and foretelling what they’d do next and where amazed me.

More tomorrow.

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