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Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams

Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland. Naval Institute Press, 2013, 184 pp.

Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland have written a compelling book that connects lessons learned from the organizational structure and persistence of Vietnam prisoners of war (POW) to modern team building. The authors begin by placing readers in the middle of the Hanoi Hilton, the Hoa Lo Prison used by North Vietnam for POWs, introducing them to key leaders, their command structure, and the internal and external threats facing that structure. Fretwell and Kiland then attempt to connect the POWs’ situation and their management of it to the leadership of today’s corporations and government agencies and their team-building strategies.

The book includes 10 chapters with interwoven themes. The chapters are included in six characteristics of high-performance cultures: “The Mission Leads,” You Are Your Brother’s Keeper,” “Think Big and Basically,” “Don’t Piss Off the Turnkey,” “Keeping the Faith,” and “The Power of We.” Each chapter ends with a graphic of these titles enclosed in a ring, with lines connecting the chapter’s main points with the relevant characteristics. This device aids the reader in connecting the dots in the authors’ thinking and, in some cases, elucidates the theme more effectively.

Chapter 4, “You Are Your Brother’s Keeper: The Catalyst for Virtual Leadership,” illustrates how the authors relate lessons learned from the Hanoi Hilton to today’s leadership. Fretwell and Kiland walk the reader through some of the most intense days in 1972 when, after peace talks with the North Vietnamese broke down and the bombings resumed, many of the POWs thought they would never see home again. Adm James Stockdale, one of the POWs, recalls the importance of keeping the team together because of their responsibility to each other—they were in effect their brother’s keeper. Stockdale communicated these thoughts by using a tap code, motivating his men to continue to resist. The authors then connect Stockdale’s use of this code to the modern communication environment, much of which occurs through e-mail.

I found the illustrations and stories of the POWs’ experiences at the Hanoi Hilton and their lives after release extremely interesting and at times quite engaging. The authors do an excellent job of gathering data and honoring the memory of these men. However, at times some of their points are disjointed. Indeed, readers looking for a book that speaks directly to a corporate organization or squadron may have a difficult time with some of the chapters’ figures, whose representation of key points and their relationship to the rings mentioned above is confusing. Nevertheless, I found the book enjoyable. It is a short, easy read and the stories are intriguing. Most of the latter are not well known and would serve as excellent illustrations at a commander’s call and training events on teamwork and crew resource management.

1st Lt Matthew Chapman, USAF

Robins AFB, Georgia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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