Hardcore: 5 Leadership Lessons from Col. David Hackworth

Buck Stewart
Nov 10, 2018 · 10 min read

Colonel David Hackworth limped through the hospital doors, a soldier under each arm bearing his weight.

Hours earlier, the enemy had pinned his troops down. Bullets came tearing from four machine guns. A sniper perched somewhere in the distance fired in their direction. RPGs cascaded in rapid succession all around them.

The Americans didn’t fire back out of fear they might hit each other in the chaos.

After exhausting all of his options (napalm, artillery, and tear gas), Hackworth decided to go in himself.

He ordered the helicopter pilot to land in the midst of the firefight. Leaping from the bird he ran to his men. He and his pilot grabbed the wounded, throwing them in the helicopter one by one.

As the helicopter flew over the field of battle machine gun fire came bursting through the metal siding.


Hackworth took one in the leg.

As Hackworth entered the doors to the 3d Surgical Hospital at Dong Tam the company medic saluted him and said, “Hardcore Recondo, sir.” Before he could reply, a chorus sprang from the hospital corridors. “Hardcore Recondo, sir!”

Hardcore, indeed.

Lesson 1: Leaders prepare for reality

When he was 14, Hackworth employed the services of a transient to play the role of his father.

He grew up an orphan, living with his grandmother in what is now Santa Monica, CA, and needed someone to give him parental consent to join the Merchant Marines.

He spent the following year earning his salt with the Merchant Marines, but it wasn’t enough to quell his youthful sense of adventure. A year later, he used his falsified Merchant Marine documents to enlist in the Army. And with a few quick swipes of the pen, Hackworth was on his way to basic training.

He embraced the military way of life. Though he had a penchant for mischief and insubordination, the discipline, hard work, and the danger of it all suited him just fine.

Throughout Hackworth’s career, training remained at the top of his agenda. He even kept a sign above his desk that read, “The more sweat on the training field, the less blood on the battlefield.”

He first learned the importance of training at one of his early commands, Trieste United States Troops (TRUST), in the northern seaport city of Trieste, Italy, during the post-WWII border dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Hackworth writes, “We worked hard during those years –long, merciless days of training, repeating, repeating, repeating until we got it right.”

His time in Trieste instituted a belief that he held to his core. To be successful in war meant proper training for those who would be fighting it.

Not surprisingly, he valued hands on practice over book learning, even at times when strenuous training was not entirely requisite.

By his own accord:

“In truth, I knew the sort of training I was putting these men through was unnecessary. The odds of their needing the stamina or the infantry like skills I insisted upon were slim to none. But at the same time, these were line soldiers. There was no excuse for their not being kept physically tough and ready to go, regardless of the cushy jobs they had going at the moment.”

There was no sitting back and waiting with Hackworth. Everyone had a role to play, and if he was in charge, they would play it well.

They would prepare for whatever horrors the enemy could bring to bear. Because leaders prepare for reality.

Lesson 2: Leaders take ownership

Hackworth played fast and loose with the rules. If it meant he could make life even marginally better for his men, it was a risk he was willing to take. In doing so, he was ready to shoulder the blame.

Perhaps the greatest example of Hackworth’s sense of ownership as a leader, is the interview he conducted with ABC news during the Vietnam War.

Hackworth’s feelings toward Vietnam had become increasingly negative. His perspective on the changing priorities of the Army from the institution he had known as a boy deteriorated.

Hackworth was well aware that to speak out against the Vietnam War and the generals leading it, something no one in uniform was doing at the time, would mean the end of his career.

It is important to note that the Army had slated Hackworth for War College. A sure indication the Army was grooming him to become a general.

About Face: Hackworth with General S.L.A Marshall in Vietnam 1966

It was not a dead-end career Hackworth would be putting on the line during this interview. But he had to do what he felt in his heart was right. And as expected, it cost him everything.

From the interview, “…perhaps we who have not been vocal should be charged for just criminal neglect, because it is our obligation, it is our responsibility, not only to train our soldiers well, to lead our soldiers well, but to make sure that there are no mistakes made, that they are protected as well as possible from mistakes and error and once you make mistakes they must be surfaced, critiqued, identified, and remedial action taken.”

Lesson 3: Leaders inspire

“Soldiers need legends. It’s a way to deal with the madness of war.” — Col. David Hackworth.

As was often the case, when Hackworth reported to his post in Manhattan Beach, CA, he was disappointed by the readiness of his command.

With a new set of rules and fitness regimen, he began slowly extracting the metal from the ore. Refining his men day by day into something of value.

One morning, he was running down the beach with the command and felt a striking pain in his side. He knew he couldn’t stop. There was no way he would crumble into a ball on the damp beach sand. Even if that is what every ounce of his being was telling him to do.

His soldiers were watching. They were always watching. And he made sure to cast himself in the kind of light that only shines on legends.

“I had a b!t@h of a time running on the beach–terrible stomach pains, so bad it took every bit of willpower I possessed to keep going. But I couldn’t fall out–not ever, let alone with the eyes of one hundred unwilling air defenders boring in on me.”

After completing the run, he was promptly taken to the hospital. His appendix had burst.

Hackworth emphasized the importance of leadership by example. He believed that “leaders do not cry to their men. They are resolute islands in the center of all insanity.”

He became that resolute island on more than one occasion. Crawling toward enemy trenches in Korea or trudging through the rice paddies of Vietnam, he remained at the front. Holding the line.

“Keep a cool head. Maintain tight discipline. Don’t let the troops panic.” — Col. David Hackworth

About Face: Hackworth receiving a silver star for heroism in Korea 1951

Lesson 4: Leaders look after their people

“The thing was, you had to look after your soldiers. It was true that a CO’s first priority was the mission, but a conflicting requirement was the welfare of the men.” — Col. David Hackworth

Few, if any, questioned Hackworth’s loyalty to his troops. He sought a way around punishing someone who made a mistake, so he could use the opportunity to teach them.

Soldiers needed room to fail and learn from their errors. He found ways to give his people direction and purpose, especially at times when morale was low.

Hackworth took it upon himself to invigorate life into indifferent, or lackluster units. He would change the name of a division to give it something to live up to.

He renamed the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam the “Hardcore,” for example. The division was considered unsalvageable. A bunch of hippies (mostly conscripts) who had no interest in soldiering.

When Hackworth first arrived, he did as he had always done. He started training. He implemented a strict fitness program. And he did away with any sort of frivolous luxury. The men despised his rules so much they put a price on his head to eliminate him.

After hearing about the bounty on his life, Hackworth moved in front of the skirmish line during an operation, his back turned. Without saying as much, he let the troops know that if they were going to take their shot, this was their chance.

No one fired.

The division began reaping the rewards of Hackworth’s initiatives. They made uncharacteristic progress on their missions. Day by day they became hardened, skilled, and unafraid.

Hackworth had turned them into a truly “hardcore” counter-insurgent battalion (Recondo). He gave them a purpose.

“For the first time the soldiers really knew what they were doing, where they were doing it, and why.” Col. David Hackworth

Hackworth didn’t always take an austere approach with his units. Sometimes he recognized that too much austerity was the issue. He once permitted the members of one of his commands unauthorized (but slick looking) Airborne uniforms.

This not surprisingly upset the general in command. So, Hackworth had the front guard sound the alarm whenever the general was stopping by for a visit and the command would promptly change back into their shabby looking fatigues.

“They looked terrible, and I got the feeling they knew they looked terrible. So, I decided everyone would wear camouflage gear. It didn’t matter if a guy wasn’t Airborne or SF; I knew that once he was suited up as if he were he’d feel he was, and that was the object.”

Hackworth viewed soldiers as “priceless assets” who deserved respect and treated them as such.

Lesson 5: Leaders set expectations

“You could be ‘overly familiar’ with Hack, but it was always on his terms. Because when he pulled the reins back, it was as if you never even knew he had a first name. We could go out with him and raise all kinds of hell till dawn, but the next day–God forbid we mentioned that we went, or failed to perform adequately, or looked as if we were hung over or needed some sleep. We soldiered and it was not discussed.” — Lt. Dennis Foley

Hackworth walked a fine line between familiarity and superiority. But he walked it well and his men loved him for it. Hackworth served as an enlisted soldier himself. And he seemed to always feel more at home with the Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of his unit than the top brass.

He had not obtained his commission through traditional channels. He was a far cry from an academy grad. The Army instead awarded him a battlefield commission during the Korean War. He resisted the commission at first. It was never his plan to become an officer. But his leaders insisted.

Perhaps for that reason he tended to view things through the eyes of his soldiers.

Because he had been in their boots before. Sometimes he blurred the line between friend and commander. But one thing was always clear, when it came time to suit up and go, his expectations were nothing short of perfection.

Setting his expectations early without letting them dissipate over time led to the development of now legendary combat units like the Wolfhounds, the Tiger Force, and the Hardcore.

About Face

Hackworth’s account of his life in the Army is both inspirational and disheartening. By the time he reached the rank of Colonel, his love seemed lost. At a time when no one in uniform spoke out against the Vietnam War,

Hackworth went on national television and did exactly that. He knew what the cost of that interview would be. He knew it could tarnish the reputation he had spent so long to build. But he made the choice regardless.

About Face: Col. David Hackworth

Because that is what leaders do.

After the interview, the chickens had come home to roost. Hackworth’s critique of the Army’s Vietnam commanders left him ostracized and the Pentagon was not happy, to say the least. Yet, despite an investigation into all aspects of Hackworth’s life, the Army permitted him to retire.

It was most certainly not how a young Hackworth would have expected to go. But that was “Hack.” By his own accord, the fact that the Army hadn’t kicked him out sooner was a matter of “luck.”

Bureaucracy and leadership are not always compatible. And Hack was definitely not a bureaucrat.

Though he put his life on the line countless times (receiving a total of 8 Purple Hearts and 10 Silver Stars), it was the political arena that ultimately took his career.

After working from the inside for over 20 years, he chose a different path. He became an outsider. He lived and worked in Australia for a time before returning to the US where he became a journalist and author.

Hackworth passed in 2005, succumbing to bladder cancer, but his legend continues to inspire a new generation of leaders.

And though he closes his memoir About Face wondering if he made any difference at all, he most certainly inspired anyone who has taken the time to read his story.

Hackworth was far from perfect. But he was — in both action and thought — a leader.

If you enjoyed this article, please recommend it and check out my blog at www.theroadoftrials.com.

Originally published at www.theroadoftrials.com

Buck Stewart

Written by

History Buff/Personal Development Enthusiast/Analyst. I run The Road of Trials, a site that teaches readers the life-changing value of embracing challenge

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