Leadership and the Truth: Lessons from the Vietnam War


7UcgHxn-asset-mezzanine-16x9-mAfzizc.jpg.crop.480x270Like many Americans, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War, the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is currently available on PBS. I was a child during this era in history, and didn’t pay much attention to the news from the battlefields. I remember the protests in the U.S., and I remember the fall of Saigon, but I don’t remember much about the events leading up to the end of the war.

leadership sign 2I haven’t watched all the episodes in the series yet, but from the episodes I have seen, one of my prime take-aways is the importance of truth for leaders in any organization.

Avoiding the spread of Communism in Asia was an important objective for U.S. leaders in the early 1960s. We can argue today over how strategic Vietnam was, but the fact was that political and military leaders in many nations during that era were heavily influenced in their decision-making by the conversion of Eastern Europe into a Soviet bloc. Most of the populations in the U.S. and in Western Europe in these years supported their leaders’ goal of deterring Russian and Chinese expansion.

Despite the laudatory objective, the U.S. decisions in Vietnam went horribly wrong almost from the beginning. Failure of the political and military leaders to seek the truth and tell the truth were large factors in creating the fiasco that Vietnam became.

The need for truth flows in both directions in every organization. Leaders must seek the truth from as many sources as they can, and they must tell the truth in every word they utter. Truth-seeking and truth-telling apply to all interactions with subordinates, peers, superiors, customers, investors, and the public—in short, to every communication with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vietnam series is brutal in pointing out incidents where our military and political leaders did not seek out information from those with first-hand knowledge of conditions on the ground, where underlings feared to volunteer negative information that leaders didn’t want to hear, and where leaders lied or hid information from the public. As a result of these failures to seek truth and to tell truth, bad decisions were made for far too long, and these bad decisions were kept secret from the public who might have opposed the carnage sooner, had they known the facts.

There’s a saying about how generals tend to fight the last war. They learn lessons from that war, and use those lessons in the next conflict. But they might forget other lessons of history or they might see the current battle through the wrong lens because of their focus on the past. That was part of the problem in Vietnam.

Many corporations also fight the wrong problem because they do not see the current challenge clearly. They focus on the wrong competitor, the wrong customer, the wrong product or technology. Their vision is myopic, they don’t see the big picture.

Moreover, leaders in any organization sometimes forget the importance of truth. The reasons for not seeking or telling the truth might vary, but it seems to be part of the universal human condition to only hear what we want to hear and to only say what we wish was true. Part of the rationale is self-preservation, part is wishful thinking, part is a futile attempt to protect those who might be harmed by reality. In the end, however, the truth generally comes out.

Good leaders make an extra effort to seek and to tell the truth, even when it hurts. They look for multiple sources of input and they are candid and transparent in all communications. They realize that facing the truth sooner rather than later is usually best for the organization . . . and, in the long run, for their own reputations.

When have you seen avoidance of the truth cause problems in an organization?

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