What can five years in the Hanoi Hilton teach businesspeople about leadership?
Plenty, says retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, who was the featured speaker Monday at the Society of Human Resources Management’s Georgia State Council Conference in Augusta.
The motivational speaker and author from Commerce, Ga., took many of the lessons learned while in captivity in North Vietnam to create the “Culture of Courageous Accountability” model promoted by his consulting firm, Leadership Freedom LLC.
“We had some of the most amazing leaders there,” said Ellis, who was 24 when his F-4C Phantom was shot down in 1967. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kinds of leaders again because the circumstances were so unique. … They didn’t have a corner office – they had a solitary cell.”
He cited fellow POWs such as Lt. Col. Robbie Risner, who was tortured for a month for disseminating his “Risner’s Guidance” behavior guidelines to those under his command; Rear Admiral Jerry Denton, whose morse-coded blinking of the word “torture” during propaganda footage first alerted the Pentagon to the harsh treatment of Americans; and Vice Admiral James Stockdale, one of the primary organizers of POW resistance.
Character, courage and commitment are the “three Cs” at the core of Ellis’ accountability model, which is laid out in his latest book, Engage With Honor. Ellis, who now lives in suburban Atlanta, said courageous leadership is needed as much in today’s board rooms as it was when he was in the enemy’s 6½-by-7-foot prison cell.
“Courage, I define, as leading into the pain of your doubts and fears to do what you know is right, even when it feels scary, when it feels unnatural,” said Ellis, whose clients have included Fortune 500 executives.
On collaboration, Ellis said there are few better examples than the teamwork of POWs, who had to rely on an alpha-numeric “tap code” to communicate their first three years in captivity.
“It was slow,” he said. “But we also had a lot of time to practice.”
Strong adherence to a duty-bound culture is why only a few of the 335 POWs in captivity during Vietnam actually collaborated with the enemy, Ellis said, adding that the only truthful information he himself gave while under duress was his name, rank, service number, birth date, his father’s name and the name of his hometown.
But even that was enough to make him feel conflicted.
“I can remember I was in handcuffs and leg irons and had been blindfolded part of the time,” he said. “And I’m laying on a filthy floor crying like a baby because I felt like I had let my country down.”
What enabled him and the others to endure the time and torture was the idea of returning home “with honor.” Ellis’ parting thoughts included the tagline from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: “There can be no triumph without loss. No victory without suffering. No freedom without sacrifice.”
“I want to add one to those: There is no honor without courage,” he said. “You cannot be an honorable person without courage, because you have to make too many hard decisions and there’s little voices in your head. There are doubts and fears playing up there and you’ve got to overcome them.”
With 400 attendees, the two-day human resources conference at the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center had an economic impact of more than $361,000 on the local economy, according to the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau.