POW Guide to Great Leaders and Survival

Lee Ellis was a prisoner of war for over 5 years during the Vietnam War. In a small cell, about 6×7 feet with no books, certainly no TV or entertainment, frequent torture and massive isolation, he and his fellow prisoners had to go inward to find strength and outward to connect and support each other through brutal conditions. With that set up, it is not surprising to see Ellis write and teach leadership skills.

Recently, he wrote a column for the American Management Association based on his new book, “Leading with Honor.”   You can see how many of today’s leaders have failed at this. Just look at an average day’s headlines:  “At British Inquiry, Murdoch Apologizes Over Scandal,”  “Ex-President of Liberia Aided War Crimes” and “Edwards Trial on Campaign Finance Begins”.. the list goes on and on.

Ellis’ book explores 14 leadership principles gleaned from surviving as a POW.

Ellis writes in his AMA article:  

“It seems ironic that some of the best examples of leading with honor come from the POW camps of North Vietnam, an environment so life-threatening that one might expect to see frequent examples of self-centered, self-serving leadership. But when life and limb were on the line, these brave leaders chose honor rather than comfort, humiliation rather than cooperation with the enemy. Their courageous service can inspire and show us what is required to lead with honor.

Great leaders know that fear is the norm, and they know they must lean into the pain of their fears to do what they know is right. Courage does not mean that you are not afraid, but it does mean that you do what is right even when it feels scary or unnatural.”

The last part of his quote is italicized because it’s so incredibly important in self-management and not letting emotions or discomfort rule our actions or character. 

Following are some ways Ellis suggests leaders could use to set up a framework for good decision-making: 

  1. Know Yourself: Few will ever be POWs, but eventually we will all face situations that expose who we really are. Spend time with yourself and go deep. Accept who you are, but realize there is always room for growth; work every day to build yourself strong so you can lead authentically, from the inside out.
  2. Clarify your values and standards and commit to them. The POWs had a uniform code of conduct that everyone knew and was charged with following. It acted like signs along the road giving direction and providing a framework for decisions, choices, and behaviors, helping them stay on the right path even in the most difficult situations.
  3. Confront your doubts and fears. Fears and insecurities take out more leaders than anything else and they generally can be traced back to your early start.
  4. Connect with your support team. In your struggle to lead with honor, you are like any other warrior—it’s not good to fight alone.

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