3 Lessons for Business Leaders from Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary

“People are crazy, times are strange.” — Bob Dylan

How do we figure out whether we are winning or not? What metrics matter and which are irrelevant? If 10,000 people visit your online store but only 10 buy, what is that telling you? If 9 of these are repeat customers, what else is this telling you?

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Watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War for the second time has been a fairly depressing experience. The quantity of bad decisions was staggering; the lies and cover-ups by our leaders was appalling. What follows are three lessons for business leaders that jumped out at me this second time around.

Pursuing Meaningless Objectives

One of the events that Ken Burns documented was the taking and abandoning meaningless objectives. A platoon or regiment would be ordered to capture Hill 709, or 937, or some other hill currently possessed by enemy soldiers, and after “winning” this “victory” — at great personal sacrifice and loss of life — they would be told to march somewhere else, to leave the hill behind.

There’s nothing more demoralizing than to give your all for an objective that is meaningless. Sometimes the objective is truly impossible, as in Stanley Kubrick’s powerful WWI saga Paths of Glory. Employees understand in advance that what their leaders are asking them to do is pointless, and being asked to do it shows how out of touch they are.

Valuing Meaningless Numbers

A second recurring theme in the Ken Burns documentary had to do with body counts. In order to demonstrate that we were winning, the generals — and our political leaders back home — needed numbers that would help justify the high price we were paying in terms of dollars and loss of life. “Taking territory” was pointless because it had now value, so they decided to count the number of people we killed.

This fallacious measure had an obvious flaw. Our troops began counting dead women and children, old men and civilians as well as enemy troops. At one point the body count was two million, and yet the North Vietnamese kept growing.

In business, directors and VPs can devise all kinds of measures that impress higher ups but have absolutely no impact on real corporate objectives, like growing market share. The only real effect is to demotivate the troops with their feet on the ground, who see what is really happening.

Ignoring Important Numbers

In the third or fourth episode someone made an intriguing observation about the way things were going. He said, “When we kill a Viet Cong soldier, they replace him with another Viet Cong. When we kill a (South Vietnamese) civilian, we get ten new pro-Viet Cong.”

This statement was a significant one. Though made without supporting data, it emphasized the manner in which sentiment increasingly turned against us the longer we remained.

Sometimes the numbers are less important than the meaning behind them. I can picture leaders quibbling whether 10 was an accurate number. “Maybe it’s five or six, but not ten,” missing the point that we were increasing the size of our enemy by indiscriminate killing of civilian allies.

Being selective about data in order to look good is a problem that happens every day in board rooms and in government agencies. The net result is we lose one of our most important assets when we fail to properly represent our situation. That asset is integrity. As a consequence, we lose the respect of our soldiers, and lose their trust.

Related Links

Data Analytics: The Three Most Important People in the Room
The Battle of Hamburger Hill (Wikipedia)

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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