10 Lessons on leadership from Hal Moore

March 25, 2018 — Leave a comment

On 14 November 1965, some 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, were dropped by helicopter in the Ia Drang Valley. They were immediately surrounded by ±2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. It was the first full-fledged battle between U.S. and North Vietnamese soldiers.

Later Lt. Col. Hal Moore wrote:

Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, of the People’s Army of Vietnam, and I were doing our best to kill each other. We’d been at it for 2 hours in the miserably hot, humid scrub jungle fringing a football field-sized clearing in the remote Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam. He was commanding well-trained, well-armed soldiers of the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment. I was a Lieutenant Colonel, an infantry paratrooper commanding a 450-man Air Assault Infantry Battalion. The problem for me, at that moment, was that I’d only been able to bring in about 250 of my men. I had sixteen Huey helicopters and it was a 20-minute round trip from the pick-up/loading areas. Lt. Col. An was attacking with upwards of 1,800 very aggressive soldiers fiercely determined to kill us all. I was suffering heavy casualties, both killed and wounded, among my troopers. We were in a struggle for survival in the first major battle between US Army and North Vietnamese regulars.”

You might not be into militaty history (or even a keen fan of the military itself) but one has to admit that it takes an exceptional leader to inspire men to lay down their lives for a cause. We can certainly learn from these leaders.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Col Hal Moore and his men fought their way through the enemy. Moore led from the front. A fierce battle ensued for the following couple of days. Although 79 U.S. soldiers died, the small unit fought with such bravery that the Communists had to withdrew. By 16 November 1965, enemy casualties amounted to 1200.

This was not Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s first battle – nor was it his last. By the end of his career he was a highly decorated military officer. But even more important than the medals that he won, was the respect his men had for him. Lt. Col. Hal Moore was a phenomenal leader.

Military author Mike Guardia compiled Lt. Col Moore’s wisdom on leadership in the book: “Hal Moor on leadership. Winning when outgunned and outmanned”. I recently read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Numerous fascinating battle stories are recounted in the pages of the book. Within these stories, valuable leadership lessons are to be found. So, this the book is not only intended for people in a military context, but for any leader who is tasked with the responsibility of leading other people.

I found myself being inspired by Hal Moore’s bravery, to be a braver leader myself. There are too many gems in the book to name them all. That’s why I thought I would start by only giving you ten:

1.) Being Head strong.

One of the first characteristics you pick up, is Moore’s positive attitude. I was struck by the following remarks:

  • “When the “hits” and setbacks come, a leader simply picks himself up and keeps moving forward.”

  • “There’s always a way. Either you find a way, or you make one. If you can’t think of a way, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Take counsel from those who have the information and experience”

  • “There are two things a leader can do: he can either contaminate his environment (and his people) with his attitude and actions, or he can inspire confidence”

  • “If a leader thinks he might lose in whatever crisis or situation; then he has already lost. He must exhibit a determination to prevail no matter what the odds or how difficult the situation. He must have and display the will to prevail by his actions, his words, his tone of voice, his appearance, his demeanor, his countenance, and the look in his eyes. He must never give off any hint or evidence that he is uncertain about a positive outcome.”

  • “He (the leader) must ignore the dust, the noise, the smoke, the explosions, the screams of the wounded, the yells, or the dead lying around him—that is all normal. He must never give off any hint or evidence that he is uncertain about a positive outcome, even in the most desperate situations.””

  • “Don’t complain to your boss. He wants solutions; not just problems.”

Question to consider: Do I have a fragrance of negativity or positivity?

2.) Leading from the front

Lt. Col Hal Moore is one of those rare leaders who led from the front. His mere example invoked bravery in the lives of his troops. In retrospect he writes:


  • “A leader must be visible to the people he leads. He must be self-confident and always maintain a positive attitude.”

  • “I’d been taught for years that leaders must set the example and tried to do so. But in battle, it is absolutely mandatory—”

Question to consider: Am I visible enough for my people?

3.) There is a link between self-discipline & self-confidence

“When in charge, take charge, but treat your subordinates with respect, dignity, and common courtesy. Being a leader does not mean that you are instantly the smartest person in the room.

You would often see that Hal Moore places a lot of emphasis on a good dose of self-confidence. He would say for example: “Be confident, but not arrogant. Self-confidence and humility are the keys to getting any job done.”

Somehow I never thought of self-discipline relating to self-confidence. But Hal Moore convinced me when he said: “A man who has more self-discipline has more confidence in his ability to do the job. There is a close connection between discipline and confidence.”

Moore saw this is his own life. He writes: “Self-confidence is a vital character trait. As I met and mastered new challenges, and successfully completed each year, every new victory increased my self-confidence—a mandatory, essential character trait for a leader. I learned that I must honestly believe I could accomplish anything.

And hence, when he tried to instill a sense of self-confidence in his men, he stressed self-discipline: “Self-discipline (study, self-improvement) leads to self-confidence. Disciplined use of technical equipment such as various software programs, charts, records, and comparative study analyses leads to confidence in those tools. Organizational discipline and smooth teamwork leads to unit confidence. When you put these all together, the result is disciplined, confident efficiency and professionalism.”

If you want to be a better leader, don’t start by trying to lead other people: “The first person you have to lead and discipline is yourself”. Thus, if you want to be a better leader, you have to grow in self-confidence. You grow self-confidence by increasing your self-discipline. Even in small matters. You can only lead others if you can manage yourself.

Question to consider: What small step can I take towards greater self-discipline?

4.) How to make decisions fast

I really appreciated a piece he had written about decision making. When a decision has to be made, Moore distinguishes between logical reasoning and his gut feeling.

  • “When my head tells me to do one thing, and my gut tells me to do another, I always go with my gut. Why? Because my gut, as I’ve learned, is rarely wrong. Instinct is kind of a caution light, an early warning, or a gut feeling which can on occasion result in a far better decision than one based on a logical process…When a quick decision is not required, I get all the information, look into the pros and cons, and then back off from it using two approaches. One approach is to reach a tentative decision at day’s end. Do not announce it. Instead “sleep on it” during the night and reconsider it early the next morning when your brain is fresh.”

Essentially he is saying, if you have the time, take the time and reason it out. If you don’t have the time, go with your gut.

Question to consider: Do I sometimes unnecessarily delay decision making, because of over contemplation?

5.) The need to empower others

Several times Moore refers to the importance of “pushing power down”:

  • ““In the large staff organizations and field commands I led, my policy was always to push the power down! If a subordinate staff officer, commander, or staff section leader felt comfortable and qualified to make a decision, he could do so with my authority and my responsibility. But, I made sure my people knew that I alone was responsible for what my staff or command did or failed to do. I am convinced my trust and loyalty downward resulted in better work habits and higher unit efficiency.”

  • “That policy kept a hell of a lot of paperwork off my desk and gave me more time to think; to plan ahead, and to create the future. In the field, in battle, or training, that policy developed aggressiveness and took advantage of fast-moving openings to defeat the enemy”

  • “Over a short period of time, this process clarifies, through practical application, each person’s level of authority with the side effect of freeing the time of the senior leaders to focus on significant problems and not waste time dealing with issues that should have been resolved at a much lower level.”

  • “Decision-making will be decentralized. It pays off on the battlefield”

Question to consider: Am I bound down by work that others could do if I empowered them enough?

6.) The proper place of reprimanding & recognition.

A leader should never tell an outfit that it’s screwed up. If he does, then it will be screwed up. Why? Because the boss said so

There are several valuable pieces of advice on how to respond to problematic persons. One piece of advice is not to escalate the confrontation too quickly:  “When leaders are confronted with disciplinary problems (be it willful disobedience, negligence, or honest mistakes), they must resolve these problems at the lowest level before raising the issue to higher echelons. If the problem can be fixed—and a remedy instituted—at the lower levels, it will benefit your relationship with your subordinates, improve the health of the organization, and not divert higher-level resources away from other priorities.”

Here is another nugget: “Praise in public; punish in private. As a leader, you should never resort to public humiliation when correcting a subordinate. It hurts unit cohesion and you may never regain that subordinate’s trust or respect. “If you need to take someone to the wood shed, do it in private.”

These are wise words with regards to reprimanding people. But Moore also has a word about the importance of recognition: “Be sure that deserving men are decorated with the appropriate awards for valor or meritorious action. Fewer things will impact a team’s morale than a leader who does not recognize their accomplishments and hard work.”

Questions to consider: Do I shine the light enough on team members who accomplish goals?

7.) Taking responsibility

One is struck by Moore’s immense sense of responsibility. He says for example: “Every person’s dignity must always be respected. I feel that if anyone under me fails, the fault is at least half mine.”

For Moore, is impossible for a leader to escape ownership when thing go wrong: “On those occasions when one of my people did not perform as expected, I found that in many cases at least half the fault was my own. I had either not put out clear, clean instructions or I had not trained that person sufficiently, or I had given him a task with little or no possibility of accomplishment.”.

Question to consider: Am I willing to take ownership of problems, or do I tend to shift responsibility or blame to someone else?

8.) The importance of learning & listening

Moore made no secret of the fact that he understood a leader to be someone who is committed to learning. He writes: “To be a leader, you must be willing to be a lifelong learner. The leaders who fail are those who think they know everything—or that they have nothing left to learn. They resent having to learn something new or adapt to a new situation.”

Talk is cheap, but Moore emulated the life of a learner by spending hours and hours in the library. He drew inspiration from “Old Blood and Guts” Patton. Moore says: “Before Vietnam, I had read a lot of military history and was deeply impressed by the leadership of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General George S. Patton, Jr. Their style emphasized four bedrock principles: surprise, aggressiveness, deception & the leader’s personal presence in the battle. They were very helpful to me on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

But learning does not only occur by reading. One can even learn from the bad and the ugly: “Throughout your life, you will probably serve under more bad leaders than good leaders. The irony, however, is that you can learn as much from a bad leader as you can from a good leader. Toxic leaders will set a perfect example of what not to be.”

Interestingly enough, Moore also finds the act of listening as a learning tool. According to him a good leader is also a good listener: “I like to do a lot of listening, that way I pick up a lot of good ideas—many from subordinates. When you listen, you know twice as much as the other guy: what he knows and what you know.”

Question to consider: Do I think other people will consider me a good listener?

9.) Introspection & initiative

All of us engage in self-talk. But according to Moore a leader’s self talk is much more self-aware: “A leader must create time to detach himself mentally and ask: “What am I doing that I should not be doing? And what am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor?””

The intention of introspection is thus do drive initiative: “There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor. And after that, there’s one more thing. And after that, there’s one more thing. And after that, one more thing. The more ‘One More Things’ you do, the better your chances are for achieving success in any situation.”

Initiative is defined as the ability to be a “self-starter”—to act in the absence of orders. Moore emphatically states: “Good leaders don’t wait for official permission to try out a new idea.”

Question to consider: What one more thing can I do to improve the situation?

10.) What goes up must come down

I have tremendous appreciation for Moore’s take on loyalty. So many leaders today demand loyalty to the top corps, but we are quick to turn on our followers. If things turn sour, we feel we can cut our losses. We never realize that we are supposed to return the loyalty-favor.

  • “The best leaders strive to create a “family environment” within their organization. A good leader aims to make his subordinates feel that they are valued members of a team. The same loyalty that goes “up” the chain-of-command must also go “down” the chain-of-command, and “across” the network of subordinates. The highly-functioning subordinates are the ones who feel that the leadership is fair and that their teammates “have their back.””

  • “Put the welfare of your troops above your own. They eat before you eat; they sleep before you sleep.”

  • “Most importantly, a leader proves himself by demonstrating his concern for and relationship with the people under him. The old adage: “Take care of your people and they will take care of you.””

Question to consider: Do my team members get the impression that I cover their back?

Lt. Col Hal Moore was immortalized by the iconic film “We Were Soldiers”. Have a look at the verbatim speech that Moore gave his troops just before going into battle. It is gives us a wonderful look into his loyalty for his troops…

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