Oswald Letter

8 leadership lessons from a former POW

Leadership2by Dan Oswald

On November 7, 1967, 1st Lieutenant Lee Ellis was shot down over North Vietnam. He would spend the next five-plus years as a POW. Not only did he survive the North Vietnamese prison camps, but he also remained in the military after his release, finally retiring as a colonel. And his combat decorations include two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War Medal.

In Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis shares what he learned about leadership from his time as a POW. It’s a powerful read, as Ellis relays stories from his days in the Hanoi Hilton and how the leadership demonstrated by his fellow prisoners often meant the difference between life and death. In his book, he takes those lessons and helps us apply them to our everyday lives.

What did Ellis learn about leadership while serving as a POW? I suggest you read the book, but here are some of the lessons he shares:

  1. Know yourself. Ellis stresses the importance of having clear priorities, connecting with your purpose and passion, and capitalizing on your personality strengths. You can’t lead others if you don’t know yourself.
  2. Guard your character. Truth, values, commitments, and the type of people you associate with are critical to the success of any leader. We often have choices to make, and the easy path isn’t always the right one. What we choose in those moments says a lot about who we are. Yes, character matters.
  3. Stay positive. According to Ellis, a positive attitude was key to survival as a POW. As another former POW Captain Eugene McDaniel wrote, “All I had was tomorrow, and maybe that was the height of optimism. Well then, I would make tomorrow count for something.” What can you accomplish simply by always staying positive?
  4. Confront your doubts and fears. Ellis defines courage as “doing what is right or called for in the situation, even when it does not feel safe or natural.” Every leader has doubts and fears, but those who can confront them give themselves the chance to overcome them.
  5. Fight to win. In this chapter, interestingly, Ellis talks about fighting for win-win outcomes. His point is that in a work environment, a win at someone else’s expense is often counterproductive. As a leader, you should look for win-win opportunities. According to Ellis, “An insatiable need to always be right and win every argument can derail relationships and even careers.”
  6. Overcommunicate the message. Poor communication, according to Ellis, not only disrupts unity but also undermines successful execution. Without adequate communication, it’s likely that people won’t understand what the team is trying to achieve or see the best way to get there. Without those two critical elements, the chances of success are greatly diminished.
  7. Develop your people. Believe it or not, the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton set up a learning program by which the prisoners taught one another subjects such as calculus, history, electronics, and French. They didn’t have books, so all subjects were taught from memory. Continuous learning drives an increase in self-esteem and allows people to reach their full potential.
  8. Balance mission and people. The military has a slogan: “Mission first, people always.” According to Ellis, “Military leaders have two primary responsibilities: to accomplish the mission and to care for the people.” This is something that every leader should learn to live by. It’s way too easy to get focused on the mission and ignore the impact it’s having on your people. Read the above words again. The quote says “and to care for the people.” That’s equal to the mission, not secondary to it. Don’t ever forget that.

Ellis tells a fascinating story about life as a POW while drawing connections to a multitude of leadership situations. It’s amazing to see how much strong leadership can accomplish even under the most trying of circumstances. Sometimes we feel sorry for ourselves. We begin to believe our work is too difficult, people don’t really care about the outcomes, and the expectations are too high. Read Leading with Honor, and see what was accomplished inside the walls of a POW camp as a result of tremendous leadership. It might just change your perspective about what you can do.

2 thoughts on “8 leadership lessons from a former POW”

  1. Sounds like a great read. I have so much respect for the men & women who have fought for my freedom. I have added Leading with Honor to my must read list!

  2. Thank you for an insightful, thought-provoking article, I will add that to my “read” list.

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