Lessons from Cu Chi tun­nels for a con­tem­po­rary Ceo/leader

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - MIRROR BISUNESS - BY EAST­MAN NARANGODA (The writer is a vet­eran banker an has also held var­i­ous chair­man and di­rec­tor po­si­tions in pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor or­gan­i­sa­tions in Sri Lanka. He can be reached via email on: east­man­[email protected] hot­mail.com)

It has been 17 years since I last vis­ited Viet­nam. I had planned my re­visit to this east­ern­most coun­try on the In­dochina Penin­sula long be­fore the Easter bomb­ing dis­as­ters, so it was a trip I had to take.

I left Sri Lanka with my wife (who had never been there be­fore) with a heavy heart. The rea­son be­ing, as a vet­eran in the Sri Lankan bank­ing in­dus­try, it was heart­break­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion - a coun­try like no other ex­pe­ri­enc­ing po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial in­sta­bil­i­ties.

The pearl of the In­dian Ocean was in dis­tress and so were many or­gan­i­sa­tions un­der the cur­rent eco­nomic con­text.

Viet­nam as a coun­try has pro­gressed with de­vel­op­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, tourism and the econ­omy. What was quite inspiring, which made me think and write this ar­ti­cle was the Cu Chi Tun­nels.

I felt that it was quite apt un­der this cur­rent con­text, that our cor­po­rate lead­ers could be in­spired with man­age­ment lessons learnt from th­ese tun­nels.

What are the Tun­nels of Cu Chi?

This was an im­mense net­work of con­nect­ing tun­nels and chambers lo­cated in the dis­trict of Cu Chi of Ho Chi Minh City, Viet­nam. This was part of a much larger net­work of tun­nels that un­der­lie much of the coun­try. An un­der­ground elab­o­rate net­work of 250-kilo­me­tres, the Cu Chi tun­nels were of great im­por­tance to the Viet Cong Gueril­las in their re­sis­tance to the Amer­i­can forces which played a ma­jor role in North Viet­nam win­ning the war.

Man­age­ment lessons learnt from the Cu Chi Tun­nels

„Never un­der­es­ti­mate lo­cal tal­ent

The tun­nels of Cu Chi were planned and built over a pe­riod of 25 years by locals which was an im­pro­vised re­sponse to its enemy’s high-tech ord­nance, he­li­copters, ar­tillery, bombers and chem­i­cal weapons.

Th­ese hands made tun­nels and chambers were built in a zigzag pat­tern at an­gles to pre­vent lin­ear lines of fire and help de­flect ex­plo­sive blasts if the tun­nel com­plex was in­vaded by enemy troops. The dif­fer­ent openings also al­lowed troops to choose al­ter­nate es­cape routes from the tun­nel com­plex if they be­came cor­nered at one lo­ca­tion. All planned and ex­e­cuted by lo­cal tal­ent.

Man­age­ment les­son: Cer­tain man­age­ment per­son­nel oc­cu­py­ing seats in the board­rooms feel that for an or­gan­i­sa­tion to progress to the next phase of growth, out­side tal­ent is a must. In most in­stances, analysing the learn­ings from the Cu Chi tun­nels, one feels that it is not the case. As a trans­for­ma­tional leader, I feel that ex­cep­tional re­sults can be achieved by guid­ing, train­ing, mo­ti­vat­ing and us­ing lo­cal tal­ent than in­fus­ing it from out­side. The peo­ple or leader groomed from in­side, would know the peo­ple, pro­cesses and the or­gan­i­sa­tion bet­ter than an out­sider and groom­ing some­one from in­side is much more economical and sat­is­fy­ing en­sur­ing ca­reer growth for ex­ist­ing em­ploy­ees re­sult­ing in a pro­gress­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion.

„Trust your team and it will be re­cip­ro­cated

The Viet Cong fought a 20-year war us­ing their lo­cal tal­ent sim­ply by believing in their teams. They be­lieved the fact that it can be done, that too only by them­selves, with their tal­ents and the lo­cal re­sources they pos­sessed. Trust and be­lief were the main in­gre­di­ents in this suc­cess­ful recipe. It was their mo­ti­va­tional fac­tor. Not only amongst the sol­diers but also amongst the vil­lagers, who acted as an ex­tended team.

Those not fight­ing the war, gave up their lives just to pro­tect the sol­diers who were fight­ing a guerilla war­fare. As in­di­vid­u­als they were noth­ing, to­gether they moved moun­tains. That was their win­ning for­mula.

Man­age­ment les­son: A leader must first trust and be­lieve in his se­nior team, and they while in­vari­ably trust­ing their re­spec­tive teams, will re­cip­ro­cate the leader’s trust. Trust in never a one-way process but a two-way street.

Only if the lead­er­ship walks the talk of pro­ject­ing and prov­ing that while they mean busi­ness and gen­uinely are con­cerned and care for their teams, that’s when a suc­cess­ful team can be for­mu­lated.

Teams should al­ways feel that their leader gen­uinely cares for them no mat­ter what and the fact that he is neu­tral and just. This is the for­mula to ei­ther cre­ate or de­stroy a strong team. „Know your spec­trum

When analysing the suc­cess of the Viet­namese, we un­der­stand that they knew the spec­trum well - their strengths and their weak­nesses. The Viet Cong mas­tered the tac­tics of Guerilla War­fare as they un­der­stood that their strength and re­sources were noth­ing com­pared to the mighty op­po­nent. They also un­der­stood their weak­nesses and op­er­ated within th­ese lim­its. Their strat­egy were sur­prise sniper attacks, shoot­ing and then dis­ap­pear­ing while us­ing the tun­nel openings to ob­serve their enemy’s reaction to the at­tack. This helped them de­vise de­fen­sive tac­tics such as cre­at­ing ex­plo­sive booby traps or punji stick pits and set­ting them in strate­gic lo­ca­tions even over­turn boxes of scor­pi­ons or poi­sonous snakes on the enemy’s head. It is a known fact that booby traps were re­spon­si­ble for 11 per­cent of all-op­po­nent deaths and 17 per­cent of all wounds dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

Man­age­ment les­son: Who else will know the core and ex­tended team bet­ter than the leader him­self, and who will un­der­stand the leader bet­ter than the team it­self? So why is there a ne­ces­sity to even look out­side this struc­ture? In to­day’s con­text, lead­ers should have the guts to sit down with their teams and be bru­tally hon­est about both their strengths and weak­nesses. Team mem­bers would then re­cip­ro­cate. The suc­cess of this exercise will solely de­pend on both par­ties - only if both the leader and team mem­bers de­pend on each other, leav­ing aside their per­sonal ego and rep­u­ta­tion. Once th­ese are iden­ti­fied then the en­tire team can strate­gise to­gether fo­cus­ing to­wards achiev­ing a com­mon ob­jec­tive/goal.

„Be­ing Re­silient

The Cu Chi tun­nels were used as hid­ing spots dur­ing com­bat as well as serv­ing as com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sup­ply routes, hos­pi­tals, food and weapon stor­age and liv­ing bunkers for the North­ern Viet­namese fight­ers. The ad­verse liv­ing con­di­tions were unimag­in­able with scarcity in air, food and wa­ter. Th­ese liv­ing quar­ters were most of­ten in­fested with ants and venomous in­sects and it is said that most sol­diers were sick with Malaria. How­ever, the Viet Con sol­diers were re­silient, sur­viv­ing through ad­verse con­di­tions, liv­ing in th­ese tun­nels, eat­ing lo­cal food and scav­eng­ing when re­quired fo­cus­ing on just one ob­jec­tive which helped them counter the op­po­nent’s grow­ing mil­i­tary ef­fort and win the war in style.

Man­age­ment les­son: Be­ing re­silient is all about un­der­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion and re­cov­er­ing quickly from dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. The Easter attacks caused a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion for the coun­try. Were we re­silient? not quite. We re­acted and dis­en­gaged. Fear took the bet­ter of us. This dis­rupted the en­tire econ­omy and dis­turbed the op­er­a­tions of busi­nesses. This shouldn’t have been the case.

Lead­ers of to­day, whether in a coun­try or com­pany, should lead from the front. Be re­silient, self-mo­ti­vated and have a ‘never say die’ at­ti­tude. They should be focused, well in­formed and al­ways have the re­sult in mind. Life is del­i­cate and or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­dus­tries are frag­ile. Only those who are com­manded or guided by re­silient lead­ers will sur­vive the tide and reap the ben­e­fits when the sea is calm.

„Un­der­stand and ob­serve your com­peti­tor

The Viet Cong sol­diers knew that the enemy was not ca­pa­ble in fight­ing them in per­son within those tun­nels. So, they kept ex­pand­ing them, with chambers and trap doors to avoid attacks. Also, when the enemy used trained Ger­man Shep­ard dogs to lo­cate trap­doors and the Gueril­las, the Viet Cong sol­diers used Amer­i­can soap which were iden­ti­fied as friendly and home which con­fused them fur­ther and pre­vented them from iden­ti­fy­ing the traps. So many dogs were killed or in­jured that their han­dlers re­fused to send them into the tun­nels which was an­other win for the Viet Cong.

Man­age­ment les­son: When Michael Cor­leone, the main pro­tag­o­nist of Mario Puzo’s novel, The God­fa­ther stated, “Keep your friends close, and your en­e­mies closer,” the im­pli­ca­tion of this quote was not merely that you should know your en­e­mies well, but more over that one should never let an enemy know that you are in fact en­e­mies. Sim­i­larly, in an or­gan­i­sa­tional con­text, it is very im­por­tant to iden­tify, an­a­lyse and un­der­stand one’s com­peti­tor and con­tinue to ob­serve their strate­gies and mon­i­tor pro­gresses closely. An or­gan­i­sa­tion should al­ways be ahead of the curve and strate­gise where it will gain com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in the mar­ket rather than lag be com­pletely left out. In to­day’s dy­namic busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment where sus­tain­abil­ity is the key to sur­vival, un­der­stand­ing com­pe­ti­tion and their strate­gies are of para­mount im­por­tance. It can be that dif­fer­ence be­tween sur­vival and col­laps­ing/bank­ruptcy.

„Never re­act un­nec­es­sar­ily

The almighty op­po­nents of the Viet­nam war tried sev­eral meth­ods to counter the guerilla attacks by the Viet Cong. From launch­ing large scale ground op­er­a­tions to lo­cate the tun­nels, to de­fo­li­at­ing rice pad­dies, bull­doz­ing jun­gles and vil­lages, spray­ing chem­i­cals aeri­ally that destroyed cul­ti­va­tion. While all th­ese were hap­pen­ing the Viet Cong, sol­diers re­mained safe and un­harmed in the tun­nels. Never did they re­act but ob­served their enemy closely which en­abled them to strate­gise and ex­e­cute ef­fec­tively.

Man­age­ment les­son: In to­day’s world, distractio­n seems to be the way of life. From digital de­vices, cor­ri­dor grapevine to re­ac­tions from col­leagues and peers, to­day’s lead­ers have many ex­ter­nal fac­tors that can dis­tract them from their core role or ob­jec­tive. This re­mains the same, whether one is man­ag­ing a coun­try or com­pany. Lead­ers of to­day should fol­low the Viet Cong sol­diers. They were dis­ci­plined and un­shak­able. Their con­cen­tra­tion on achiev­ing the end goal was unimag­in­able even in to­day’s world. The outcome of course proves the fact that hasty re­ac­tions and de­ci­sions don’t achieve re­sults for who­ever is patient has great un­der­stand­ing, but one who is quick-tem­pered dis­plays folly. Viet Cong sol­diers taught us to never ever com­pro­mise the ob­jec­tive or achiev­ing end goal. One can com­pro­mise for the goal but never THE GOAL.

„A good leader can do won­ders

It is said that Ho Chi Minh first emerged as an out­spo­ken voice for Viet­namese in­de­pen­dence. He was the sym­bol for the Viet­nam’s strug­gle to free­dom. Even though he con­tin­ued the strug­gle from be­hind the scenes, he sent out a very focused and clear mes­sage to the peo­ple of his coun­try, which was “noth­ing is as dear as to the heart of the Viet­namese as in­de­pen­dence and lib­er­a­tion”. This be­came the motto, the ob­jec­tive, the goal and the fo­cus of the North Viet­namese cause.

Man­age­ment les­son: A good leader is like a shep­herd. One who can guide the sheep to destinatio­n. A strong leader can be the best guide, mo­ti­va­tor and men­tor. He leads from the front and op­er­ates with the team. A great leader does not shy away from mis­takes. He is hon­est, main­tains high lev­els of in­tegrity, his ac­tions are cred­i­ble, com­mit­ted and his work re­flects his pas­sion. He doesn’t mash his words but is a good com­mu­ni­ca­tor who is neu­tral among his peo­ple. He is un­der­stand­ing (empathy), un­bi­ased, ac­count­able and pos­sess good de­ci­sion-mak­ing skills. He is con­fi­dent and com­fort­able in his skin and there­fore is not scared about em­pow­er­ing and del­e­gat­ing to the next level. A great leader al­ways re­cruits those who are bet­ter than him and paves the way for ten sub­or­di­nates to fill his shoes. He di­rects his team to­wards end destinatio­n and en­sures that the team achieves it. It is ei­ther do or die for a good leader - for he be­lieves he will do it along with the team or die with the team. Suc­cess is shared, but the falls are his and his alone. A great leader never stops learn­ing and con­tin­ues achiev­ing till the very end.

The Viet Cong and the Cu Chi tun­nels they cre­ated are ex­am­ples for not just mere sur­vival but sur­viv­ing suc­cess­fully un­der dis­tress con­di­tions. It is a com­mon mind­set of the leader and his fol­low­ers - all work­ing as one team to achieve one com­mon dream. It is the best ex­am­ple that to­day’s con­tem­po­rary ‘C’ suite ex­ec­u­tives can fol­low with a pas­sion and suc­cess is guar­an­teed. They achieved it, why can’t we? I be­lieve we can, what do you think?

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