Robert McNamara’s Leadership

Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) was the most powerful American Secretary of Defense in history and in many ways the architect of the modern war on terror. He was an immensely talented and successful man, whose career went up like a rocket from the beginning. Born in San Francisco, he was an Eagle Scout and President of the Rigma Lions boys club in 1933. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied economics, mathematics, and philosophy, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his sophomore year, and earned a varsity letter in crew. After receiving a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939, he worked for Price Waterhouse for a year. He then joined the Harvard faculty as the youngest and highest paid Assistant Professor at the university. He joined the Army Air Force in 1943 and worked in the Office of Statistical Control, where he analyzed the accuracy and effectiveness of US bombing missions, and made powerful connections.

In 1946, McNamara and 9 other former officers joined Ford Motor Company with a mandate to stop its financial and administrative chaos using modern planning and management control systems. He again advanced rapidly, and in November, 1960 became the first president of the company who was not a member of the Ford family. A few weeks later, President-elect John F. Kennedy recruited him to be Secretary of Defense. Kennedy described McNamara as the smartest man he had ever met.

Kennedy first directed McNamara to plan the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was a disaster, and then asked him to develop even more elaborate plans to overthrow Castro. In 1962, McNamara began implementing the modern strategy of counterinsurgency warfare to combat terrorism; he created special forces like the Green Berets, and sponsored secret paramilitary operations throughout Asia and Latin America. In 1963, again in response to the President’s request, he began a troop build-up in South Vietnam. After Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson asked him to stay on as Defense Secretary, and in essence turned the conduct of foreign policy over to him. Johnson, in awe of McNamara, commented “He is like a jackhammer….He drives too hard. He is too perfect.” In 1964, Johnson asked him to be his Vice-Presidential running mate, but McNamara declined.

McNamara prosecuted the Vietnam War with his usual diligence, but had doubts about it being winnable. In 1967, he sent President Johnson a long memo urging him to begin negotiating with the North Vietnamese rather than escalating the war. Johnson decided that McNamara was plotting against him on behalf of the Kennedys, fired him as Secretary of Defense, and anointed him as President of the World Bank where he served from April, 1968 to June, 1981, when he retired.

The Vietnam War is widely regarded as the greatest foreign policy mistake in U.S. history. Over 54,000 American troops died, millions of Vietnamese were killed, and nothing was resolved. In 1995, McNamara published a memoir in which he said his conduct of the war was “wrong, terribly wrong”. In reply, Howell Raines, the editor of the New York Times, wrote an editorial in which he noted: “Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”


At each point in his career—as a student, academic, business executive, Cabinet Secretary, and public figure—Robert McNamara was fabulously successful. He substantially rebuilt Ford Motor Company, as Defense Secretary, he was instrumental in putting in place wide ranging reforms to streamline the Pentagon and make it more effective, and he transformed the World Bank from an old boy’s club to an instrument for third world economic development. And then there is the Vietnamese war—an unmitigated disaster. How are we to understand this?

The answer concerns how we think about leadership. The academic literature defines leadership in terms of the ability to ascend to the top of a hierarchy, and McNamara was superbly equipped to do this. He was very smart, very hard working, great with numbers and details, clear-minded, logical, and very, very eager to please his superiors. This is the recipe for success in a bureaucracy.

In contrast with the academic literature, I think the essence of leadership concerns being able to build a team, being able to unite a group and act toward a common goal. McNamara was ruthlessly dismissive of subordinates who challenged him (he had no peers). His talent was for fixing inefficiencies and implementing processes. He had no talent for anticipating or even considering the human costs of his processes. His concern about the Vietnam war was that it was unwinnable from a technical perspective, not that lives were being wasted. He was an immensely successful bureaucrat but not a gifted leader.

There is a sense in which Robert McNamara was a train wreck waiting to happen. He was an exquisitely tooled bureaucratic instrument, who could and would deliver results for whoever happened to be his boss. As Secretary of Defense, his first boss was the callow and impulsive John Kennedy, who ordered him to begin what ultimately became our war on terror—covert and illegal operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia. He second boss was Lyndon Johnson, a skilled and ruthless legislator who knew nothing about international relations, and whose staff feared he was insane. Kennedy foolishly invaded South Vietnam, Johnson inherited the project, and vowed not to be the first American President “to cut and run.” McNamara’s ambition and eagerness to please authority prevented him from opposing these policies and the rest is history. As for moral culpability, he was just following orders.