ShopAFA has recently had the opportunity to work closely with former Air Force pilot and POW Lee Ellis. We currently offer the autographed copy of his book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton for sale on ShopAFA.org. We sat down with Lee to ask him a few questions about the book, and get an insider look at what it took to produce such an influential and moving work.
In this powerful and practical book, Ellis candidly talks about his five and a half years of captivity and the 14 key leadership principles behind this amazing story. Read the Q&A, below.
A conversation with Lee Ellis about his book Leading with Honor.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to write this book?
A: "As I reflected on my Vietnam POW experience, I learned so much during that time. And there were many principles that apply in all areas of life and leadership. Having been a leadership consultant, trainer, and coach for many years, I could see how the lessons from the POW camps applied to everyday life. It all starts with honestly knowing yourself. Because we had a lot of time to reflect and think about things, I really got to know myself. What are your strengths; what are your struggles; what are you afraid of? Because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. Are you living to be authentic?
I learned to be positive and expect a good outcome, even in difficult circumstances. Communication is really big. We really had to work hard to communicate, because the enemy tried to keep us from communicating. Another big one is bouncing back. We got knocked down and tortured, and what we learned was resilience.
Also retaining our honor, which really is about doing what’s right. Our leadership there was so extraordinary, because those guys led when there was no real reward other than honor and doing the right thing.
Then after I returned and finished my military career, I began using the leadership lessons as part of your executive coaching and training work with my business clients. This process inspired to write Leading with Honor to share these stories and leadership lessons with as many people as possible."
Q: Why do these stories need to be shared?
A: "As a leader, you’re going to face chaos and difficult decisions. Challenges are going to be right and left. The world of work is changing, and competition is coming faster. People look for something that they can hold on to in those times—anchor points. And for me personally, I like to have my checklist. When I’m multi-tasking on all these different areas, I need to go back to my checklist and make sure that I’m not leaving something out. And to be honest, it’s not easy to lead with honor. I must coach myself every day.
These 14 lessons are my checklist. How am I doing? Am I over-communicating? Am I being resilient? Am I staying positive? Am I building cohesive teams? Am I developing my people? I can do quick cross-check to see if I’m hitting all points. I use these principles in this way, and I believe that business leaders can do the same in addition to developing the people under them.
I can’t think of anything better than taking a group of leaders through these chapters together, having discussions about them every week or month, and growing these leaders together. It’s a powerful process and would set a great example. When you do that, though, you have to walk the talk; you have be vulnerable, or you’re going to be seen as a phony. Some people may be afraid of that process, but I believe that most people are up to the challenge by taking their people with them on their personal growth journey."
Q: How would this book help and inspire today’s airmen and their families?
A: "In the POW camps, we had to keep setting goals so we could mentally and emotionally handle it. Then you set another goal and meet that goal, and pretty soon you are walking yourself one day at a time into the future and toward a goal. We also had personal development goals. For instance, I learned differential calculus with a piece of broken red roof tile writing on a concrete floor in the corner of the room. A fellow who majored in math from the Naval Academy taught me differential calculus. Then I memorized Spanish words while sitting or walking around the cell and soon started speaking Spanish every day and when I came home I was pretty fluent in Spanish.
We did those kinds of things to keep us busy. I learned to stay occupied and move toward some goals. We also had these great leaders who really made a difference and they were positive also. Leaders give people hope in difficult situations and they gave us hope and built a culture around the belief that we would someday go back home. We had to do our duty and we were going to have to suffer, but in the end we were going to be victorious and walk out of there and go home. They built the culture and set the example. We had no reason not to believe that we weren’t going to go home at some point.
The same is true with today’s airmen. You must set personal goals and steadily work to achieve them. You must hone the mental and emotional resilience to know what you’re working to achieve is important. Then once you’ve determined your personal goals (leading yourself), then focus on leading others in a positive encouraging way. Your leadership influence could be the difference in another person’s life and work."
Q: What is your background and how did your own POW experience affect your personal and professional life?
A: "After coming home from being a prisoner of war, I decided to stay in the Air Force. I had considered other options but decided that I wanted to stay in flying. By the time I got back on active duty and went through training for three months to get re-qualified, it had been six years since I had been in an operational unit in a real job. And then six months after I returned to the U.S., I got promoted two years ahead of my peers to the rank of Major. So now instead of being six years behind my peers, I’m eight years behind them. Now, I had to compete in those circumstances; I’m eight years behind in flying time, operational experience, leadership, and more, but I was just determined to do my best and live and lead with honor.
These principles really helped me. The experience and principles had matured me enough to do the right thing and catch up with my peers (and later stay ahead of them). I had to work very hard, but the principles helped tremendously to have a very successful Air Force career as an instructor pilot, flight commander, section commander, and flying squadron commander. It was also during this time that I got into leadership development and higher education for military officers and officer candidates. That’s where I got deep into leadership as a professional educator and not just as a leader.
When I retired from the Air Force, I’d also done some work in assessments and understood their development and use in career development. So, I went to work with a non-profit, faith-based organization to develop a career assessment program for them. We did that, and developed one for middle school, high school, and adults. It’s still in use worldwide.
Then more and more, I was doing leadership consulting for people that knew my past work history and expertise. Since that seemed to be a good fit, a business partner and I started a leadership consulting company in 1998 in Atlanta. I’ve been doing leadership and executive coaching since that time."
Q: What lessons should readers learn from these stories?
"The important thing is that these lessons were tested and proven in the crucible of the POW camp—the most difficult circumstances of leadership that one can imagine.
Now, today we have some difficult challenges in leadership; I face challenges—all leaders do. But, these lessons have been proven in the most difficult circumstances where the leader had go eyeball to eyeball with the enemy physically, mentally, and emotionally every day.
So, I know they work. I really believe that it can change people’s lives, change organizations, and change leaders for the better."