TRAIN HARD, FIGHT EASY
The road to Nui Le had been a long and hard one for the Fourth Battalion. The training grind in Australia had been incessant and unforgiving, a chance to make mistakes (only once) and avoid making them under the unforgiving gunsights of the NVA.
At this stage, Jim Hughes was everywhere. In Viet Nam itself however he made the support of the soldiers his number one priority; his officers and soldiers could be trusted to carry out the field operations with only minimal supervision.
RELATE TO THE PUNTERS
Ultimately it’s the soldiers who do the fighting and they were the people with whom Jim spent the most time.
His appetite for their opinions on the best way to operate seemed bottomless - because it actually was. He remarked once he could tell the quality of a unit quickly by soldiers’ willingness (and ability) to argue about the most mundane items of tradecraft.
People marvel at a leader’s ability to remember subordinates’ names but no one is going to forget (ever) the Colonel jotting down their idea on using gardening shears in his notebook.
We Australians expect leaders to lead but it’s all too easy to become a tall poppy. At first glance, Jim Hughes seemed to have lost this battle before it even started.
Everything about him, from his patrician nose, his immaculate turnout and his air of certainty spoke of a ‘type’ Australian soldiers have been learning to hate forever. That never happened with Jim.
Perhaps this grand self-confidence always seemed to be about us as a collective and not just about him. Whatever it was, it worked.
While people, particularly Australian people, detest arrogance they are more afraid of well-intended stupidity. Jim always gave the impression he knew what he was talking about.
But his confidence was the type which includes others, not one which relegates them to their place on the totem pole of bureaucracy.
LESS IS MORE
General De Gaulle only spoke directly to the French people by radio twice in his long career as President and both times his opponents were vanquished.
Everybody listened to his speeches closely because they were so rare. While Jim had few things in common with De Gaulle, except perhaps the nose, they did share this uncanny ability to talk directly to their mass audience when they had to. But only when it was really necessary.
Jim was authentic – a quality now increasingly recognised as critical for good leaders. A colleague remembers listening to his chief executive drone on about leadership and then opine his own experience in amateur repertory had been very useful in helping him develop his leadership skills My friend acidly retorted “that may be so Dick but they mustn’t know you’re acting”.
There was no artifice about any of this with Jim Hughes. The man you saw was the man you got.
In one of the eulogies at Jim’s funeral, someone said his life had been driven by three dictates. The first two, integrity and honour were entirely familiar to anyone from Duntroon, the Royal Australian Military College. But the third one, kindness, was completely out of left field.
I remember one of my colleagues was not only a conscientious objector, more than bad enough in an infantry battalion bound for Viet Nam, but was also gay.
This was a precarious position indeed in the 70s but when he finally summoned up the courage to speak to Jim about this dilemma, he was heard out in respectful silence, asked a couple of questions about his own hopes of how this should work out and then told to “leave it with him” and they could talk again on Monday.
My colleague left Townsville for Sydney the following morning and left the Army without prejudice the day after. Do remember this took place 47 years ago in an Australia was not confounded by the great Plebiscite question.
In such a situation, the result in those times could have been very different. Jim wasn’t like that. Today he would be called an inclusive manager who respected diversity but that was his nature.
Would Jim have been such a great leader today, in the age of selfies and Facebook? My answer, from my time in the military and my much longer time in the corporate world, is good leadership is good because it satisfies timeless criteria.
Jim was a great leader not because he led from the front – he was not actually in the battle that day – but because he led from within. Those who served with him knew what was expected, they knew they had his respect, that what he expected them all to do was not whim but an informed understanding of what was needed.
Jim and his ilk would probably have detested social media and adhered to who they were and what they had learned the hard way.
I think they would have just simply said good leadership is good because it satisfies timeless criteria. The greatest sign of his leadership was what his men could do when he wasn’t actually there.
Gregory Dodds is former senior trade commissioner Japan and executive general manager, Austrade, north-east Asia and Vietnam War veteran
This article draws on an obituary for Jim Hughes written by Greg Dodds for the Fairfax press