John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Leaders are also readers, and when I travel I use the time to catch up on my reading and writing. Ignatius Press recently sent me The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffery D. T. Shaw to review, and it was time well spent!
Shaw tells the story of the rise and betrayal of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The book is extremely well researched, footnoted, and written–worthwhile for students of history, politics, or leadership.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the man who would become the President of South Vietnam, was actually born in what was once the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South to a politically connected Catholic family. His father’s political connections to the French colonial authorities and his Catholic faith meant he was well-educated in Western thought, and his membership in one of Vietnam’s “great families” meant he was immersed in Confucian thought. Diem even considered the priesthood briefly, but in the end his duty to his country ruled his heart. In short, in both education and temperament, no one was better prepared than Diem to guide Vietnam during the transition from colonial and post-war society into the modern family of nations. Unfortunately, due in no small part to meddling from Washington by people who had no first hand knowledge of Vietnam or Diem, this was not to be.
Post-World War II Vietnam suffered from the same political and societal chaos as the rest of the world. Communists and opportunists used the vacuum created by retreating and defeated empires to attempt to install regimes friendly to their own agendas. At the conclusion of the Pacific War in 1945, just as in Korea, Japanese forces surrendered to separate Allied nations in different parts of the country. In the South, the British forces accepted the Japanese surrender while in the North, it was the Chinese. When the French installed Emperor Bao Dai, the Communist Viet Minh (later: Viet Cong) led by Ho Chi Minh began the First Indochina war to overthrow the French-supported post-colonial regime and install a Communist government. With considerable support of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic, the Viet Minh defeated the French-Vietnamese National Army at Dien Bien Phu. It was then the Great Powers partitioned Vietnam with a promise of UN-supervised elections that never came. Ngo Dinh Diem had risen through the ranks of colonial government, became president of South Vietnam in 1955. Due to his social status and his occupation as a scholar, many Vietnamese saw Diem as the leader with the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven” to rule. After reflection, it seems to me the crux of the conflict between North and South Vietnam was not so much between Communism and Capitalism, or between Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. Rather, it was a battle in the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam about who had the Mandate of Heaven: Ngo Dinh Diem or Ho Chi Minh.
Many elites on the Left in the USA saw Diem very differently than the people of Vietnam. It was telling to me that the men who actually went to Vietnam and spoke with Diem respected and supported him, while policy wonks inside the Beltway who had done neither plotted his removal. Vice President Johnson argued forcefully against Diem’s removal, as did Ambassador Colby, Chief of Mission in Saigon. Both men had met with Diem personally, and both had been to Vietnam themselves. The Viet Cong did a masterful job of playing up the slightest mistakes and even twisting events to appear to be what they were not. An American press anxious for stories that sell magazines, sometimes printed poorly researched stories then stuck with their line when the facts on the ground didn’t match. Finally, while the author doesn’t explicitly say it in the book, reading the quotes from senior leaders and policymakers at the time makes it clear there was considerable willingness to believe the worst of Diem, and few who were willing to allow facts to rule their judgement when those facts contradicted their preconceived notions.
Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration encouraged, either passively or actively, the removal and killing of of Diem in Saigon. In Confucian society, the scholar is at the top of the social respect pyramid, and the soldier is near the bottom. In encouraging the coup, Kennedy Administration demonstrated not only an appalling lack of understanding of the facts on the ground, but a complete disregard for the culture we were meddling in. By replacing a scholar-monk like Diem with a junta made up of soldiers, we effectively upended and “un-ordered” society at precisely the moment when order and national unity was a prerequisite for winning the war against the North and stabilizing the country. The results were predictable: chaos and a lack of national will to fight the Viet Cong and the North.
The ouster of Diem was not America’s finest hour, and was a result of ideology in Washington trumping solid leadership and sober decision-making. The Lost Mandate of Heaven is well-written and thoroughly researched. Shaw does an excellent job of laying out the facts, and I particularly appreciated the heavy use of primary sources. Quotes from the major decision makers’ own personal writings, official records, and direct-cited official communications all lay out a clear and unemotional case of at best malfeasance by the Kennedy Administration, and at worse criminal behavior for planning the unlawful coup of an ally. It’s a book worthy of any reading list on history, organizational dynamics, or leadership. I recommend this book highly.
Lead people for any length of time and you’re bound to fail.
I know there’s a lot of Type A’s out there who are convinced they never fail, but I assure you, if you’ve been leading for more than 5 minutes you have failed! So all you high achievers, you who’ve been number one at everything since you were a fetus, this post is especially for you.
Early in my military career I learned the secret to surviving failure, even an epic one, could be summed up simply. As is often the case, the secret to keeping yourself out of the psych ward after a failure is expressed in a cute little acronym: FIDO. FIDO stands for Forget It And Drive On, and is a reminder not to be paralyzed by fear or embarrassment. For most people failure will be a setback at best and a debilitating event at worst. FIDO is the way successful people overcome their failures and roadblocks to find their way in life.
FIDO is hero Marine 1Lt Clebe McClary’s personal motto. After he was grievously wounded in Vietnam, McClary decided he had to “drive on” and not let his injuries define him. I was privileged to hear Lieutenant McClary speak when I was a young officer and it made a big impression on me. My friend and 4-time Olympian Ruben Gonzalez started training for his first Olympics at age 21, the age many Olympic athletes retire. Not taking “no” for an answer, Ruben made the Argentine Olympic team, achieved an international “Top 50” ranking, and competed in four Olympic Games. Motivational speaker Jennifer Webb has even written a book about FIDO.For high achievers or “high drive” leaders, sometimes even the fear of failure is enough to induce strange and out-of-character behavior.
The difference between a man who fails 10,000 times before succeeding and a man who fails once and is a wreck for the rest of his life is perspective and balance. You see, “FIDO” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about failure; FIDO means you learn from your mistakes and put on your big boy pants then get on with the mission. It means keeping your head up when things go wrong. A “FIDO person” may never achieve what he originally intended because of a failure, but a FIDO person will find new goals to achieve and move out in that direction.
Not everyone takes failure so well. I’ve seen leaders fail and refuse help from others believing they were “done.” I’ve watched leaders refuse to take stock and evaluate their own performance, instead deflecting blame for their failures on others. There are even those I’ve worked with over the years who are so paralyzed by the idea of making a career-ending mistake they become unable to make any decision at all. Worse still is the “Type A” who is on the rise through the ranks who become an impediment to getting work done through an almost manic need to control everything.
The reality is failure is common and a part of the atmosphere of leadership. Any leader worth their salt has to be able to “take a metaphorical punch,” learn, and then “drive on.” Both the fear of failure and wallowing in that failure are counter-productive. Leaders are human with the same emotions and self-doubt every other human possesses. The difference between high achievers and the rest of us mortals is how they deal with failure.
The lesson is this: don’t let failure or the fear of it define who you are. No matter what happens take stock, learn, then FIDO.