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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Leadership Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara´s death this week has reignited the controversy over the Vietnam War.  Many Americans blame McNamara for everything from America´s first lost war to the death of 58,000 American troops. Even in death, McNamara´s life remains a contradiction – a brilliant but flawed leader. Yet much can be learned from McNamara, both good and bad.

I had the privilege of working for him in 1966-1967 as assistant to the Pentagon´s CFO.  I saw McNamara as a hard driving but compassionate leader, committed to addressing major issues in the world. He was passionate about nuclear proliferation and reducing the risks of nuclear attack.  From the Cuban missile crisis, he knew first-hand just how close we and the Soviets came to mutual self-destruction.

On Vietnam, he was a tortured human being who knew intuitively the war was not going well, but couldn´t admit it in public. Yet privately he was desperately seeking an honorable way out. His last forty years he ruminated about what went wrong. His agony was painfully displayed in Errol Morris´ 2004 documentary interview, “The Fog of War.” McNamara tried to explain his mistakes, but never could admit his initial error in getting the U.S. into the war.

As a 23-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, I opted to defer my business career to learn leadership from McNamara and the extraordinary people around him. Along with three classmates, I was responsible for a wide range of analyses that McNamara demanded, from the cost of the war and F-111 aircraft studies, to analytical justifications for getting out of the war.

That brought me in regular engagement with McNamara, as well as great leaders like Cyrus Vance, Paul Nitze and, Harold Brown. McNamara surrounded himself with young people known as “whiz kids” for their brilliance but also their arrogance. Driven by McNamara´s quest for analytical data, they believed numbers could solve all problems.

Ironically, McNamara´s greatest strengths were his greatest weaknesses and led to his downfall. He used his analytical intellect to dominate Kennedy´s and Johnson´s cabinets. But his machine-gun questioning style was so intimidating that he cut off honest “truth tellers” trying to help him understand the reality in Vietnam.

McNamara had intense loyalty to powerful bosses like Ford´s Henry Ford and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, which also led to his undoing.  In late 1967, word got to President Johnson that McNamara opposed the war, causing Johnson to replace him with Clark Clifford. Instead of telling him directly, Johnson leaked the news that McNamara was being sent to the World Bank.

McNamara´s greatest flaw was his inability to admit his mistakes. Even when he knew he was wrong, he searched for a rationale to prove he was right. At times all 40,000 people in the Pentagon were trying to cover his mistakes – and our own.  His initial strategy was to match North Vietnamese and Vietcong troop buildup with incremental additions to U.S. troops, but this led to a stalemate.

McNamara then bought into the rationale that we could win a war of attrition through superior “kill ratios” (the ratio of enemy troops killed to our own) to decimate the enemy. This resulted in systemic overstating of the number of North Vietnamese and Vietcong killed. My college ROTC buddies told me that dead bodies of enemy troops were counted 3-4 times, just to improve kill ratios. Unfortunately, McNamara never recognized the numbers were falsified, because he trusted numbers as “truth.”

To verify the data, my boss forced military intelligence to remove the estimated enemies killed from their force strength. In the eleven months prior to the devastating Tet offensive in January 1968, official reports indicated the Vietcong force dropped 80 per cent. After inflated estimates of 40,000 enemy deaths during Tet, the report´s fallacies were exposed.

The following year McNamara gave the keynote address at the commissioning of Naval carrier John F. Kennedy. He broke down several times and had to stop midway through his talk. I recognized then he couldn´t cope with the reality that Vietnam had destroyed the promise of the Kennedy years. To the end, McNamara was like a tragic Shakespeare figure, torn apart by internal agony but still searching for the answers to what really happened. 

The tragedy of Robert McNamara´s leadership is this: an outstanding public servant was brought down by his unwillingness to face reality and unwillingness to admit his mistakes.

Portions of this are drawn from Bill George´s forthcoming book, “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.”