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Lessons from Cu Chi tunnels for a contemporary CEO/Leader


29 May 2019 11:26 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



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 zig-zag 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?
(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:

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