Ngo Dinh Diem

Leadership Lessons from The Lost Mandate of Heaven

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Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem (Photo: “Biografías y Vidas”)

Last week, I reviewed The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey D. T. Shaw (Ignatius Press), While Lost Mandate is not a leadership book, senior leaders can mine a number leadership lessons from it.

The Most Senior Leader Must Remain Engaged

Kennedy was involved in most of the decisions leading up to the coup, but the author never presents any evidence that he was involved in making an affirmative “go/no-go” decision. It appears he simply allowed his advisors and senior Cabinet officials to make national decisions without his direct input. C-suite leaders must walk a fine line between micro-managing and being too passive. As I detail in Leading Leaders, senior executives have to understand where to be personally involved and what to delegate. This skill more than any other is essential for leaders at all levels but vital for senior leaders. Executives can strangle an organization by over-controlling, but they can also find themselves dangerously off-course by “checking out” and allowing others to make decisions only the CEO should make. Kennedy was directly involved in how US military forces supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, but appears to have left the decision to remove and ultimately have Diem murdered in the hands of a committee.

Facts, Facts, Facts–Even When They Clash With Your Worldview

Senior leaders can become so enamored with their own ideas and ideology that they refuse to accept facts when they see them. This results in senior leaders making decisions on emotion and guesswork rather than on facts. The CIA and DoD, as well as dissenting elements of State and even VP Johnson all told Kennedy that Diem was the right man to lead South Vietnam. Instead, false and misleading reports as well as outright fabricated stories in the press seem to have contributed to the decision to remove Diem. Senior leaders must insulate themselves against emotional decisions by constantly seeking out data to drive decisions. Additionally, those same leaders must be willing to be convinced when the weight of the facts contradicts their preconceived notions. The coup was enabled because facts from people who actually had first hand knowledge of Diem and South Vietnam were ignored in favor of “experts” in Washington and New York.  Senior leaders and executives must continually ask “why?” and reward those who are courageous enough to speak their minds. Failure to do so will result in reports of everything being “great” right up to the point of bankruptcy or worse.

Culture and History Are Crucial

As I’ve written before, being culturally literate is a central precept to doing business in the 21st century. The world is very “small” due to high speed travel and communication, so a failure to understand the context of decisions usually leads to poor decisions. Furthermore, making uninformed decisions not only frustrates our aims, it usually leads to unintended consequences. The uninformed “experts” in Washington believed they could replace a scholar with a military general without understanding the cultural significance of that act. The Vietnamese people, and even Ho Chi Minh himself, believed Diem and honorable man and a patriot–he had the Confucian Mandate of Heaven to lead. Upending the social order and removing the man with the Mandate invited disunity and social chaos the Communists exploited to their benefit. The aim of removing Diem was to speed the victory over the Communists, but it probably enabled the Communists’ victory 10 year later. With Diem gone and the military in charge, the war ceased to be a national fight for the heart of the Vietnamese people and instead became a proxy war between the Americans and Soviets to the benefit of the Vietnamese Communists. Executives have to rely on their staffs of experts, but they have to understand the context of every decision. That sort of expertise only comes with experience and study. The best international organizations spend considerable energy to understand their environment and make decisions in the context of the cultures and people involved. No matter how good the intel, the best decisions are made collaboratively with those involved and affected.

Unity Does Not Mean Uniformity

Diem understood he governed in a multi-religious environment (Confucians, Buddhists, and Catholics) and went to pains to ensure he showed no favoritism. It’s ironic, then, that the event probably orchestrated by his enemies in Hanoi and Saigon and that gave his enemies in Washington fodder to oust him was over religious freedom. A quick survey of the facts by Shaw proves Diem was no despot, but that was the label unjustly applied to him as a pretext for his removal. Diem did not require uniformity in belief, only unity of action. In modern parlance, we use the word diversity as shorthand for this idea, but the concept is more than a buzzword or recruiting principle. Unity of effort toward the organizational goals is far more important than uniformity of belief or action. Diem chose people who shared his vision of a democratic and free Vietnam regardless of their religion. Senior leaders would do well to select team members who share their goals and work well with their teammates, rather than looking for a particular pedigree or background. In this way, senior leaders can assure themselves they get the best possible advice and enable the best possible decisions.

Summary

Just as in the Kennedy Administration of 1962, leaders can allow their personal biases and lack of first hand knowledge to become a barrier to sound decisions. C-suite leaders and senior leaders at all levels have to guard against allowing that to happen, lest they end up creating a worse situation than the one they’re trying solve. When Kennedy gave the green light to the plotters in Washington and Saigon, he couldn’t have forecasted the cascade of disasters that would follow. While most leaders in business will never have the fate of nations in their hands, their business and their employees are counting on sound decisions. A committment to sober decisions based on facts should always be the senior leader’s priority when they come to work each day. Secondary effects require a clairvoyance few possess.