I wrote in this blog some time back the story of how I failed to use leadership with the 43 guys working for me in Saigon as the fall of the city to the North Vietnamese loomed in April 1975. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s worth revisiting.
By the middle of March 1975, I knew that the North Vietnamese would take Saigon. The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my people and their families. In essence, he didn’t believe it was possible that South Vietnam would fall to the enemy—it was unthinkable. I cheated, lied, and stole to get the people I was responsible for safely out of the country. I succeeded. By the end only I and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me remained.
But I didn’t tell my guys that the ambassador has refused to allow them to be evacuated. At the time, it seemed to me that they had enough to worry about without that burden. I thought that they never knew. I was wrong.
Last year, I met one of my former subordinates for coffee. He told me that the men in comms center had read the eyes-only messages I was sending the Director of NSA, General Lew Allen, about my predicament and how I intended to solve it by sending my men and their families out of the country on any ruse I could think of. In short, all of them knew what was going on.
As a former NSA colleague pointed out to me when I told that story earlier in the blog, I should have expected NSA employees to use all the skills they had mastered to learn what was really going on. We NSAers all did that all the time. We had invariably figured out what our bosses were up to long before they made their actions public.
What’s more important is that I managed when I should have been leading. A cardinal rule of leadership is to share information with the followers. Instead, I tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to withhold the ambassador’s orders from them. As a leader, I should have trusted them to have the fortitude to withstand the bad news. But they, God bless them, outsmarted me.