Keep Your Team Together- Three Stories from War and Crisis

Seasoned negotiators know it’s not enough to talk to the other side; it’s also critical to keep the team unified. Three brief stories from Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the siege at Waco illustrate what can happen if you don’t, and hint at what might help you keep your team together….^^

  1. Vietnam (MacNamara) – In The Fog of War, former Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara recalls that the Johnson administration sent a peace message to Ho Chi Min. It arrived the very week the military began bombing Hanoi. This simple mix-up between two separate parts of the government quickly helped derailed any hopes for a peace settlement.
  2. Cuban Missile Crisis (MacNamara) – While Kennedy was trying to signal a desire to slow things down and talk with the Soviets, U.S. General Curtis LeMay authorized a missile test that seemed to signal aggressiveness. The mixed signal nearly provoked the Soviets to nuclear war. The moment is dramatized in the movie, Thirteen Days.
  3. Waco– During the tragic 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas, over 20 FBI negotiators tried to talk the members of this religious community out of their building. At least twice at the very moments when some Davidians agreed to comply, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team decided to show force, driving tanks into the compound and destroying Davidian property, a move which killed trust and caused the surrenders to fall apart. (You can view a remarkable documentary of the story at
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/waco/view/Note that doves can cause havoc too. If an unauthorized peace delegation from your country visits the enemy’s capital, it can unwittingly signal weakness, undermining your country’s war effort.What to do? As these stories suggest, it’s crucial- and difficult- to keep your team together. In her best-seller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln used a mixture of political smarts, firm leadership, and almost super-human patience to keep his cabinet, Congress, and nation unified during the American Civil War. The combination of political skill and patience is something trained negotiators and consensus builders know something about- indeed, it’s central to their work.