Respect for Subordinates: Leadership (5)

One more story about me and my guys in Saigon, about a time when I managed instead of leading.

I’ve related here the story of Ambassador Graham Martin’s insistence that I not evacuate my people when the fall of Saigon loomed. While pretending to obey his command, I lied and cheated and faked to get my guys and their wives and children safely out of the country.

But I screwed up. I withheld from my men the ambassador’s orders. I didn’t want to alarm them. They knew better than I did that the North Vietnamese were bearing down on us. They knew the attack on Saigon was coming soon. They knew that the North Vietnamese were within striking distance of us. They were the guys gleaning this information from North Vietnamese communications and transmitting back it to the U.S.

I informed the Director of the National Security Agency, my boss, General Lew Allen, of the ambassador’s prohibition of evacuation, in an eyes-only message. I told him I was going to use all means at my disposal to get my people out.

By dint of blatant falsehood, pretense, and invention, I succeeded in getting all my men and their families safely out of Saigon before I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the street of the city. I breathed easy in the belief that I had spared my guys the anxiety of knowing the ambassador had forbidden me to evacuate them.

Then, a year or so ago, I had coffee with one of the men who had been a communicator in my comms shop. He told me that the men handling my messages to the director had, of course, read them and knew that no evacuation was to be allowed. Word trickled through my comms guys, then among the rest of the staff. They all knew what I was faced with. They apparently decided among themselves not to let me know that they knew to save me further anxiety.

So they were taking care of me instead of the other way around. And I let them down by not trusting their courage and maturity. In short, I managed when I should have led. And they, God bless them, did all they could to reduce my angst by playing along.

In the long term, it was they who led me.

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