What Can Leaders Learn From the Life of Robert McNamara?

Posted 07.08.2009

Rmacnamara1 As a 48 year old, I am too young to have a first hand recollection of the role that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara played in shaping the Vietnam War.  As a student of leadership and history, I’ve been fascinated to read the many different obituaries, articles and editorials that have been written about the man since he died earlier this week. They range from sympathetic (as an example, see this interview with George McGovern on Politico ) to reflective (for instance, David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post) to angry (Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times is one example).

Of all the articles I’ve read on McNamara, the most comprehensive is the front page piece by Thomas Lippman in the Washington Post. With respect and acknowledgment to those who experienced Vietnam as young adults, here are a few lessons that I’ve picked up from the life of Robert McNamara that I think leaders should keep in mind.

Subjective Information Matters at Least as Much as Objective Data:  McNamara established himself through his application of statistical process control techniques to the bombing of Japan in World War II and, later, to the manufacturing process at Ford Motor Co. After his first visit to Vietnam as Defense Secretary in 1962, he famously said, “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.”  What the measurements didn’t account for was what McNamara himself later described as “large indigenous support” bound by “bonds of loyalty” among the Viet Cong.  I think the lesson for leaders is to not be so wedded to a particular management system or methodology that you become blinded to the actual dynamics on the ground.

The Second Most Important Thing for a Leader to Say May Be, “I Made a Mistake.”  In 1995, twenty years after the Vietnam War ended, McNamara wrote a book in which he said that he was “wrong, terribly wrong” in his prosecution of the war.  There are different points of view as to whether or not he went far enough in acknowledging the depth of his errors.  What does not seem debatable is that he waited far too long to acknowledge that his policies were flawed. The record shows that McNamara had private doubts about his strategies as early as 1964 and certainly by 1966.  It’s beyond my realm of expertise to diagnose what kept McNamara from acting on this realization when it could have made a difference.  Perhaps it’s best to leave it to the words of the late journalist David Halberstam who wrote that McNamara was “a prisoner of his own background… unable, as indeed was the country who sponsored him, to adapt his values and his terms to Vietnamese realities.”  Perhaps a lesson for leaders here is to regularly question your assumptions and motivations when making decisions when the stakes are high.

The First Most Important Thing for a Leader to Say Might Be, “I’m Sorry.”  As I read the first few articles to come out after McNamara died, my initial thought was that he did a lot to redeem himself through his leadership of The World Bank in the late 1960s and 1970’s. The more I read, however, the more I understood how many people are still enraged by what McNamara did on Vietnam (The Bob Herbert piece is the best example I’ve seen of this).  I think I understand at least part of the source of the anger. As far as I can see from my reading, while McNamara eventually said he made a mistake, he never said, “I’m sorry for what I did.”  Clearly, there’s a difference. As human beings, we can’t expect perfection from others but I think we do expect an apology when we’ve been hurt or wronged.  I wonder how those who still feel aggrieved and enraged by the decisions McNamara made would feel if he had offered a clear apology for the mistakes he said he made.  Sometimes leaders need to say, “I’m sorry.”