The Best Book on Leadership You’ve Never Read
Perhaps you may have read “Leaders”, the seminal book on leadership by Warren Bennis. Or maybe you’ve skimmed over “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John Maxwell. Perhaps you have a well-worn copy of Steven Covey’s the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” sitting on your bookshelf…
You probably haven’t heard of this book. Or if you have, it’s not in your leadership section of your local Barnes and Nobles. The book I’m talking about is called “Steel my Soldiers Hearts” and it’s a war book.
Instead of being a book about leadership, it’s a book about leading. Specifically, it’s an autobiography of Col. David Hackworth’s time in with the US Army’s 4/39 Battalion of the 9th Division in South Vietnam. And it’s an object lesson in leadership.
The 4/39th Battalion was a sad-sack reject battalion with low-morale and lower combat performance when Col. Hackworth (then Lt. Col.) took over. Its mission was to patrol the quagmire of swamp and rice paddies in the Mekong Delta. And it was failing badly. More soldiers were casualties to booby traps and landmines than enemy fire and morale was terrible. It was the Army’s worst fighting battalion.
In the space of a few month, the battalion was transformed into the “Hardcore Recondos”, one of the fiercest fighting forces in Vietnam. It’s a great story, a turnaround story as great as any business leader’s, even greater because lives were at stake.
The book seldom talks about leadership, it rarely distills the lessons into laws or maxims. Instead, you as the reader have to shift and analyze what Col. Hackworth did to turn this “pussy” battalion into warriors.
Leading from the Front
By the time Col. Hackworth left the 4/39th, he had received his seventh Purple Heart. The brass deemed him too important to be shot at and turned him stateside. By leading from the front, Col. Hackworth endeared himself to his men. He wasn’t willing to sit back at the fire support base in an air-conditioned command tent while his men were in deep in the thick of the fight.
Col. Hackworth had the utmost respect for the American fighting man. Remember that these were not the highly trained, expert warriors of the modern U.S. Army. These were members of a draftee army, pulled from every neighborhood (mostly poor) in America. These were average citizen soldiers who had the misfortune of not being born to rich parents and having an unlucky draft number.
Before he took over the battalion, the previous commander had had a porta-potty flown in and planted next to the command tent. Cold beers and hot showers were normal luxuries in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Hackworth did away with all those, imposing lean, hard and austere conditions on the men. They complained, they resisted, but they also knew that it wasn’t a double standard. Everything they had to suffer, their commanding officer suffered with them.
A New Identity
Infantrymen at that time had to wear “steel pot” helmets which had a camouflage helmet lining made of canvas that was strapped over the helmet. When he arrived at the battalion, Col Hackworth noticed that the G.I.’s had scribbled invectives on the lining that reflected their dissatisfaction with the Army. He ordered everyone in the battalion to flip their linings inside out. Instead of a camouflage print, a simple brown color now covered all the 4/39th’s helmets. As the battalion learned their new tactics, they starting hearing enemy chatter about the hated “brown-hat soldier” and how they were to be feared and respected! This simple act of discipline helped instill psychological fear in to the enemy and gave the soldiers a bonding symbol.
Col. Hackworth had to change the culture of the outfit and started slowly but ensured that the cultural changes were ruthlessly enforced. When starting out, he would only issue two new rules. When the battalion mastered those two rules, he would give two more. Like turning a massive tanker, he tackled small meaningful things first and kept at it until those small things were retained. The first two rules - weapons clean and present at all times, helmets always on. Little things.
The 4/39th were given a new name. When saluting the soldier would have to say “Hardcore Recondo, sir” - and the officer would have to reply “No F*cking Slack.” Recondo was a combination of recon and commando. It sounds hokey and silly but as a testament to the power of naming things, “Hardcore battalion” became a source of enduring pride. Special insignias were made for the members of the battalion. Stationary was changed. It started out as silly until it became a badge of honor.
Vision and Details
All of these leadership tactics would have been moot if Col. Hackworth didn’t have a vision for how to fight the VC. What ended up being cool, could have been “Mickey Mouse” if the commander didn’t lead them to victory.
Having spent years before in Vietnam, Col. Hackworth had a strategy to win. He would have the Hardcore Recondos “out G the G”. The would be better guerrilla warriors than the guerrillas themselves. Using ambush tactics and smart deception, the 4/39th built up a fearsome record in the Mekong Delta and severely shut down VC activity in the area.
But it was not enough to be a big picture guy, one of the traits of all great military commanders has been their ability to focus down and make sure the details are right at the tip of the spear. Col. Hackworth would personally greet every replacement soldier, as well as walk the perimeter and chat up the soldiers in the forward areas.
His supply officer, recalled the time when a soldier complained that his boots were too large for him. Col Hackworth chewed out his supply officer and ordered him to pull apart the country looking for boots that fit. This officer ended up finding a pair of women’s boots that worked. “This taught us all an important lesson, that Hack cared for the lowest of soldiers and he expected his commanders and staff to damn well look after them.”
Col. Hackworth knew the value of knowing the greater pictures as well as zooming in to the small details.
Col. David Hackworth died at the age of 74 in 2005. After leaving Vietnam, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and criticized the Army’s disregard for soldier’s welfare. He formed Soldiers For The Truth Foundation, an organization dedicated to military reform.
To the very end he was a soldier and a leader of men.