Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Former POW Sets Us Free To Lead with Honor - Review of "Leading with Honor" by Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for five and a half years after he ejected from his crippled USAF Phantom jet over Vietnam in 1967. For eighteen months of that long imprisonment, John McCain occupied the cell next door. Like his fellow POW McCain, Lee Ellis has taken what could have been a crippling episode in his life and turned it an an opportunity for reflection, self-awareness and a post-military career of distinction and service to others.

In his new book, "Leading with Honor - Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton," the author digs deep into his soul and his history - both as a prisoner of war and as an executive coach and consultant - to extract lessons that are universally applicable to anyone privileged to lead others. The format is simple and deeply impactful. At the beginning of each chapter, Ellis shares recollections of his time as a prisoner of war, and reflects on leadership lessons he gleaned by examining his own behavior and the behaviors of other brave men with whom he was incarcerated. He then transitions to a section in which he applies that leadership lesson to a "real world" situation - often a business challenge. He cites a variety of examples from the many companies and leaders he has helped in his role as consultant and coach. Finally, he boils down the crucial point of the chapter into what he calls a "Foot Stomper" - a pithy, short paragraph that captures the essence of the leadership principle in question. The result is a compact book on leadership that is both powerful and practical.

The first half of the book deals with helping the reader to lead himself/herself. The second half concentrates on principles of leading others. Chapter 9 - "Develop Your People" - I found to be a particularly inspiring chapter. In his memoir section, the author recounts the extraordinary efforts that his cadre of prisoners undertook to pass their time constructively and to keep morale high under the most trying of circumstances, including physical torture. Within his cell, the prisoners took inventory of the areas of expertise that they possessed, and they created a curriculum whereby prisoners would teach other prisoners.

"Even though Camp Unity had much larger rooms - my cell measured about twenty-five feet by seventy - fifty-five of us were jammed in there like sardines,twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. . . In such close quarters, SRO [Senior Ranking Officer] Clower quickly realized that things could get dicey if we didn't have activities to occupy our time. So he asked Captain Tom Storey (USAF), an experienced educator, to launch a learning program. Tom listed several study options using the concrete slab floor as his blackboard and pieces of broken brick as chalk. The electives included math, calculus, science, history, Spanish, French, electronics, German wines and public speaking.

One track of courses was taught on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and another on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. School was in session three hours in the mornings and two hours in the afternoons. . . Most cells had similar ongoing educational programs, and someone came up with the idea of organizing an officer candidate school for the only three Air Force enlisted men in the Hanoi POW camps. A number of officers developed a rigorous curriculum and volunteered to teach the various components of the course. When the three men returned home, the U.S. Congress approved the program and offered the candidates commissions as second lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force.
The lack of books or outside resources did not limit our continuous learning in the POW camps. We relied on recall of past education, and where there was a lack of clarity on a subject, we tried to get a consensus of the best minds. . . Our investment in development has paid big dividends in the years since." (Pages 121-123)

Lee Ellis and his fellow prisoners were well ahead of the wave of "Crowd Sourcing" that has become so popular in this century.

The practical application of this chapter leads with the story of US Air Captain "Sully" Sullenberger and his "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of the crippled 737 with no loss of life. The point was that a life-long commitment to self-development, training and development at the hands of others had uniquely prepared Sully for this once-in-a-lifetime emergency situation.

Two different pilots of crippled aircraft - flying worlds and decades apart - each has a great deal to teach us about courage and leadership under duress.

Here is the "Foot Stomper" for this chapter: "Authentic leaders engage in continual development. Knowledge alone is not enough; the only way to grow as a leader is to do things differently,and that requires change. Go first, and then take your people with you." (Page 128)

During this time of year when we thing about giving meaningful and thoughtful gifts, this book would be a welcome addition to the library of any leader or aspiring leader.

No comments: