Hard-Learned Lessons of Honor from a”Hanoi Hilton” Prisoner of War
By Lee Ellis
Leadership lessons came fast in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp—it was literally a school of hard knocks. For more than five years, I served as a young lieutenant with senior leaders who demonstrated honorable behavior under the most horrific circumstances. More importantly, I personally experienced the sacrifice that it takes to live and lead with honor and accountability.
Contrast these honorable leaders with the seeming lack of honor and accountability in so many of our political candidates and leaders. When the dark side of human nature emerges with self-serving, rationalizing thoughts and actions like pride, fear, or laziness, the next logical step is looking for shortcuts and loopholes to get ahead. In contrast, accountability provides the guardrails that help us keep our commitments and be who we want to be. It is the faithful “guardian companion” of honor.
With political role models falling short in the character traits of honor and accountability, the duty to instill these characteristics in the leaders of tomorrow falls squarely on the shoulders of parents, teachers, and community.
Today’s youth needs to understand that the best long-term, results-driven strategy comes from leaders who choose courageous accountability—that is, choosing the “hard” right decisions over the easy, short term, self-serving ones. By building a cultural foundation of character, courage, and commitment, all leaders can influence teams, organizations, families, and ultimately our national consciousness.
4C’s of the Courageous Accountability Model
- Clarify. Our POW leaders set policy, and they took great risks to communicate it accurately. Make sure that you have clarity about expectations, starting at the highest level of mission, vision, and values.
- Connect. POW leaders showed great respect and concern for others. As an inclusive team, all of us strove to achieve the same goal—to return with honor. Evidence continues to grow that a team or business is more productive when their leaders are connected with them in positive ways.
- Collaborate. Even though senior POW leaders were clearly in charge, they approached issues more as teammates than as bosses. This step seems so easy. “Sure I like to collaborate,” you say. But when faced with challenges, ambiguity, and hard choices, the negative emotions can come quickly.
And it especially requires you to manage yourself and manage differences uniquely. We use behavioral assessments like Leadership Behavior DNA™ to help leaders better understand the unique strengths, struggles, and communication style of themselves and their team members. You cannot manage everyone the same.
- Closeout—Get Closure with Celebration or Confrontation. In the midst of our POW experience, we learned that celebrating survival milestones and even minor accomplishments lifted our spirits, brought us together, and energized us for the next battle. If you have diligently followed the steps above, the critical parameters are in place for you to celebrate success! Don’t be afraid or reluctant to celebrate.
For those times when you’ve applied and managed the steps above and it did not turn out well, you have to courageously confront the situation and the person with well thought-out consequences.
So take steps now to reverse the cultural and political trends in our culture—encourage your kids to engage with honor and accountability. It will make any leader a person of great influence on current and future generations.
Lee Ellis is the author of Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability. As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, human performance, and succession planning.