Make Every Step Count on Your Leadership Journey. How did American Military leaders in the brutal POW camps of North Vietnam inspire their followers for six, seven, or eight years to remain committed to the mission, resist a cruel enemy, and return home with honor? What leadership principles engendered such extreme devotion, perseverance, and teamwork?
In this powerful and practical book, Lee Ellis, a former Air Force pilot, candidly talks about his five and a half years of captivity and the fourteen key leadership principles behind this amazing story. As a successful executive coach and corporate consultant, he helps leaders of Fortune 500 companies, healthcare executives, small business owners, and entrepreneurs utilize these same pressure-tested principles to increase their personal and organizational success.
In “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” you will learn:
-Courageous lessons from POW leaders facing torture in the crucible of captivity.
-How successful teams are applying these same lessons and principles.
-How to implement these lessons using the Coaching sessions provided in each chapter.
Tell me a little about your book Leading With Honor
It’s based on my five-year experience as a POW in Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton complex. The chapters follow a set format. First there is a story from the prison cells. I was very young and junior in rank, so typically the stories highlight the courageous example of our senior leaders. Then the chapter transitions to the lesson/principle from the story. And finally, I share client-based experiences to show how the lesson applies in the workplace today. Each chapter closes with specific coaching questions on that lesson and a “footstomper.” The footstomper is a one sentence summary of the entire chapter lesson.
This structure in the book makes it unique as a leadership resource. Many of the POW stories cover a range of emotions, and that makes them memorable. We learn best through our own experience; and secondly, through the strong stories and experiences of someone else. If we can remember a particular story or experience, tie it to a principle, we are much more likely to apply a principle in everyday life that helps with our daily decision-making.
What is the backstory behind your book?
I was a USAF fighter pilot flying armed reconnaissance missions over the roadways of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In November 1967, while on my 53rd mission, my aircraft was blown up over enemy territory. I ejected and during my parachute descent, there was a lot of shooting being directed up from the ground at my wingman, but the bullets were also whizzing by me. I tried to evade capture, but the militia gunners surrounded me quickly. One of them looked at his pocket-size “pointy-talkie” and yelled “Shurrender – No Die.” I decided that my S&W Combat Masterpiece .38 revolver was no match for a half-dozen AK-47s and so I raised my hands. It took two weeks to travel to Hanoi, and that experience exceeded anything a Hollywood screenwriter could imagine.
The local populace tried to kill me on three occasions during riots inspired by the local communist party cadre. The only reason I was not killed was the order to the militia “to bring them in alive,” especially aircrew. The Communists wanted us for bargaining power. The journey was made even more dangerous because we were attacked four times by U.S. military aircraft looking for Vietnamese trucks carrying supplies on the roads there. I prayed hard and they had lots of bomb shelters along the roads, so I managed to survive that experience, but that ride to Hanoi was an unforgettable trip.
Once I got there, I was put in a 6.5’x7’ cell with three other captured aircrewmen. One was the guy that I was flying with, and then a Marine F4 Phantom crew. We stayed in that cell for 8 months, locked in that tiny little dungeon more than 23 hours a day, getting out only to empty our bathroom bucket and pick up our meals—usually a bowl of soup and piece of bread or cup of rice twice a day. It was very thin soup—typically six months of pumpkin soup, three months of cabbage soup, three months of turnip green soup. I was glad to be a country boy, because my cell mate from Long Island, New York didn’t adapt quite as well to the meals. We also got out for about ten minutes for a quick wash down with a bucket of water.
We were pulled out periodically for interrogations and ordered to write or record anti-war propaganda statements. We refused and were tortured until we agreed to do something. They could break you and make you do something, but we made sure that what they got would be a joke when read or heard by an American.
We were well trained for what we were doing, and we were professionals, American fighting men who were committed to resist the enemy at all costs. We stuck together, we battled to live by the Military Code of Conduct; and that along with our great leadership really kept us together for those many years. Almost all of us were there for more than five years, many for six or seven and a few were there eight years. I was released when the war ended in 1973 (5 ½ years after capture).
What experience caused you to see a need for Leading With Honor?
People kept encouraging me to write my story, but there are other really good POW autobiographies. After discussion with some wise friends, it seemed clear that my experience as a leadership coach and trainer gave me a unique angle for a POW story. I could share the leadership lessons from that “Hanoi Hilton” crucible that enabled us to resist, survive, and return with honor. I saw that when these principles are lived at the top, the lessons flow down the organization, enabling mission success. Ultimately, they can impact an entire culture and society. I really do want to see our leaders leading with courage and honor, because it will have an impact.
This book will fit almost any audience, but it is specifically targeted for developing leaders. As an aside, one of my greatest points of satisfaction with the book is that even though it’s almost entirely about men (only one chapter has stories about women—wives of POWs) women love this book. And lots of young teens have read it with their parents.
In the introduction, I say, “Who’s going to be the one to develop the next generation of leaders?” Well, it’s the current generation of leaders. They have to own that responsibility, and I believe that this book will be a big help.
I want this next generation of leaders to have these principles early on in their careers and not have to stumble around and learn so much by trial and error. They can read the POW stories, see how they are applied today in the contemporary case studies, and then apply the coaching from the book. Thus, they can learn these principles early on. When you have principles that really work, you can build on that and know that you are going to be authentic and respected.
How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?
I am verbally expressive, but wouldn’t call myself a writer by nature, as my natural talents are generally more action focused. It was the discipline learned while locked up all those years that enabled me to start and finish a book. If you study history, you will see that often our greatest growth comes from suffering.
I’m a concept and logic person by nature and writing has given me a vehicle to share ideas and principles that I’m passionate about. Working on a book always reminds me of the importance of every person on the team. I enlisted feedback from family, close friends and colleagues, and I had a great developmental editor. We formed our own media brand (FreedomStar Media) to publish this book and now two more books. From that I know that the publishing effort has many hands stirring the pot: editing, copyediting, layout, cover design, printing, marketing, sales, etc. As in any other successful venture, many minds and talents come into play, and in this case, it was all for my book with only my name on it. What a blessing. I could not have done it without them. I think that’s a great leadership lesson for all of us.
Overall, I’ve written five books and two widely used workbooks. Drawing from that experience, in recent years, I’ve mentored several authors on their first book effort. It’s been a joy and privilege to help them.
What books would you recommend for a Junior Officer ready to go to his or her first operational command?
Besides my own books (Leading with Honor, Engage with Honor, and Leadership Behavior DNA), these immediately come to mind:
- The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner and James M. Kouzes
- True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George with Peter Sims
- Lessons in Leadership: A Fifty-two Week Journal by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
- Courage: The Backbone of Leadership by Gus Lee
- The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck, MD
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from Leading With Honor?
To learn how to lead yourself and lead others through my stories and the amazing example of the courageous and authentic POW leaders.
This year class of 2021 earns their commission and heads to their first command. What specific recommendations do you have for them as they embark on this lifetime of leadership?
Be clear about your principles of integrity and character and battle to live accordingly. It will take courage, so learn to lean into your doubts and fears to do what you know is right. Know yourself, accept yourself, and be authentic. Be humble so you can always be learning and growing. Be confident so you can be authentic. The most important attributes of a good leader come from a healthy individual—someone who is real, authentic, and humble yet self-confident.
If you spend time worrying about yourself or your competition, rather than just doing your job really well, that’s not healthy. Self-doubt, feelings of insufficiency and false pride cause a person to be self-focused, which undermines one’s judgment and performance.
Know yourself, and know what you’re committed to, and don’t be afraid to keep your commitments and do what you know is honorable. If you do that, you’re probably going to do well.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
Besides my own books (Leading with Honor, Engage with Honor, and Leadership Behavior DNA), and those mentioned above, these immediately come to mind:
- The Bible – I read it often growing up, and we all desperately wanted one in the POW camps. Since the war, I’ve read it from cover to cover several times and still read something in it almost every day.
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
- The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck
- John Adams by David McCollough
- The Six Fundamentals Of Success by Stuart R. Levine
Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?
Whether it’s fiction of non-fiction, reading affords us the special opportunity to learn principles and life experience from someone else. Stories and examples make lessons easy to remember and apply in our own work and life situations. Avid readers usually realize how much they don’t know, and they may be more likely to truly listen, be objective, and consider other perspectives and viewpoints. And as we all know, listening to each other and being respectful of differences is just as important as it’s always been.
What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
Current books that I’m reading are:
- Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders – Joel Manby
- The Grit Factor – Shannon Huffman Polson (Shannon was one of the first women to fly the Army’s Cobra gunship.)
- Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others by James Kouzes and Barry Posner
- Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
- Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones (reading it for the 4th time now)
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
I wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was 5 years old. Even though there was little experience on how to achieve this goal as a farm boy growing up in north Georgia, I pursued this early passion until I found a way to do it.
In our small high school, I lettered in four sports, and football was my favorite. Even though I was small in stature, I loved the physicality of football and the success that comes when every player on the team executes his assignment. I looked forward to practice every day.
A final fact would be that I had the chance to return to Vietnam in 2014 and re-visit the Hoa Loa prison (Hanoi Hilton) 40 years after my captivity. It was a surreal, sobering, and surprising experience. In the Hoa Loa prison museum, the false propaganda of our “fair treatment” is on display. Yes, the photo ops happened, but the good food and recreation you see were rare and then mainly intended for propaganda. But the positive surprise in my visit was discovering how much the Vietnamese people like Americans, hate the Chinese, and only tolerate the Russians. Since we brought them diplomatic recognition and business investment in 1994, their economy has skyrocketed. Overall, it was a very positive experience that I will never forget.
What else do you want your readers to know?
Honestly, my work is fun and gives me great satisfaction. I don’t plan to ever fully retire—maybe slow down a bit for more golf and travel.
Next, my wife Mary, children, and grandchildren are the joy of my life. Anything that we do together is special.
As a University of Georgia graduate, watching the Dawgs football games—in person or on TV.
Finally, my faith as a Christian is important to me. God’s love and blessings inspire me to invest time and money into helping others.
General Mattis talks a lot about using reading as a tool to learn from other people’s experiences. Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others’ experiences?
I’m a big fan of David McCullough’s biographies and have learned a lot from his stories: John Adams, Truman and The Wright Brothers. Also, I’ve read several biographies on Abraham Lincoln and I especially appreciated Piers Brendon’s biography, Winston Churchill.
What is next for you?
My company, Leading with Honor, continues to grow and expand offering coaching and training services in a variety of ways. I have a fantastic team who helps me every day, and we’re looking ahead for new ways that we can help leaders be honorable and successful. It’s a bright future because our tribe is committed to leading with honor and our culture needs that message—and in fact as humans—we all do.
A native of Commerce, Georgia, Lee Ellis graduated from the University of Georgia in 1965 and began a career in the Air Force. During the Vietnam War, Lee’s aircraft was shot down over enemy territory and he was held as a POW in various prisons in the Hanoi area for over five years. As a military officer, his experiences as a POW piqued his interest in leadership performance in difficult situations, leading to further research and academic pursuit in the area of measuring and optimizing human performance and leadership effectiveness. After repatriation he returned to flying duties with increasing positions of leadership. Rising to the rank of colonel before retirement, Lee’s assignments included duty as a pilot, flight instructor, staff officer, chief of flight standardization and evaluation, flying squadron commander, and supervisor in higher education. He was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Valor device, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with eight Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Prisoner of War Medal for his service in Vietnam. In addition, he was awarded four Air Force Commendation Medals and four Meritorious Service Medals for performance excellence. Lee is also a 2014 inductee into the Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame and the 2015 DAR Medal of Honor Recipient for a lifetime of patriotic service as a military officer and spokesman for leading with honor.
Personal: Lee and his wife Mary have four grown children and six grandchildren. They reside in the metro area of Atlanta, GA.