Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

  • Published

Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton by Lee Ellis. Freedom Star Media, 2012, 256 pp.

I have visited the infamous Hoa Loa prison in Vietnam, which American prisoners of war (POW) called the Hanoi Hilton, and have never forgotten the experience of observing the conditions endured by our POWs. It held me in its grip and has never let go. Recently I read Lee Ellis’s Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, an absolutely first-rate book that had a similar impact on my impressions of POW life. With this well-researched study, Ellis has added immensely to our understanding of the POW experience, using his extraordinary insight to provide the reader with powerful lessons in leadership and a portrayal of life under the harshest prison conditions imaginable. The author’s five years, four months, and two weeks (1,955 days) of captivity constitute the basis of his chilling yet fascinating story.

The key to the book, which includes an excellent foreword by fellow POW and US senator John McCain, lies in its treatment of the role of leadership and explanation of how it can be duplicated. In a deeply perceptive and thoughtful manner, Ellis demonstrates that leading with honor deals with placing service to others ahead of self-interest. This type of exemplary leadership, most often demonstrated by POW leaders, calls for clear vision, strong character, and the ability to instill confidence and purpose in others. It often entails making great personal sacrifice and enduring terrifying, brutal torture such as beatings, being suspended by the arms, forced sleeplessness, confinement in darkness, extended periods of kneeling, and other instances too heartbreaking to mention. Ellis clearly indicates that as he and his companions fought for survival against an enemy who attempted to isolate, divide, and subdue them, they risked and suffered torture to sustain each other. How did these men manage to persevere? According to the author, “We were definitely a band of brothers, and we leaned on each other in difficult times” (p. 77).

Without books, television, magazines, newspapers, or other forms of information or entertainment, these POWs turned to each other as their only source of learning, encouragement, and inspiration. Ecumenical church services conducted in the prison extended consolation and much-needed solace by offering the prisoners messages of hope and urging them to disdain self-pity, hold fast to their blessings, and reflect on their good fortune at being alive. Keeping the faith, as reflected in their discussion of Psalms 1, 23, and 100, remained their central focus and sustained their hope that they would one day come home to their families, friends, and country. The men also kept in mind the Boy Scout oath, which “was a powerful force in the POW camps, reinforcing [their] military training on the principles of duty, honor, responsibility, and faithfulness . . . : On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country” (p. 87). Further, they passed along Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem “If,” tapping it out in code through the cell walls and throughout the prison, and kept their minds active by organizing an education program consisting of languages, mathematics, history, and other subjects of mutual interest. Ellis also pays tribute to the wives of POWs, such as Sybil Stockdale (wife of VADM James B. Stockdale), who lobbied senior government officials such as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to gain more support in helping other wives uphold and strengthen the cause of POWs and individuals missing in action.

On balance, Leading with Honor contends that leadership is not easy; if it were, everyone would do it. Indeed, the difficulty itself makes leadership great. Ellis’s thesis suggests that, with dedication and effort, people can learn leadership—a concept both simple and complex. To further this learning process, he provides a series of lessons he learned as a POW, dividing them into the book’s two parts: “Leading Yourself” and “Leading Others,” accompanying their chapters with what he describes as “Foot Stompers.” “Leading Yourself” includes the chapters “Know Yourself,” “Guard Your Character,” “Stay Positive,” “Confront Your Doubts and Fears,” “Fight to Win,” and “Bounce Back.” The second part, “Leading Others,” offers the chapters “Clarify and Build Your Culture,” “Over-Communicate the Message,” “Develop Your People,” “Balance Mission and People,” “Build Cohesive Teams,” “Exploit Creativity,” “Treasure Your Trials and Celebrate Your Successes,” and “Free the Captives.” The “Foot Stompers” appear at the end of each of these 14 chapters, helping summarize the key points.

In this personal, passionate, and moving work, Lee Ellis has succeeded brilliantly in communicating a story bursting with POW life in a horrible prison in faraway Vietnam more than 45 years ago. He emphasizes communications, teamwork, and innovation—three key leadership ingredients that emerged from his ordeal, which, according to Ellis, anyone can learn and put into practice. Moreover, he points to resilience as a way of life for the Vietnam POWs, whose mission is embodied in “six powerful words: resist, survive, and return with honor” (p. 131). In this objective, they succeeded admirably.

I was especially impressed by a most revealing outcome that the author addresses. That is, “the human body, mind, and spirit can endure and overcome far more than one might expect” (p. 82). A strong commitment to duty can help see us through the most difficult of hardships. This, coupled with the support of others and undying faith and hope, constitutes a formula for surviving life’s most challenging circumstances. Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver.” Leading with Honor uses a pile driver to tell its story, making many points that today’s leaders can employ. If you read only one book this year, make it this one. You owe it to yourself and to those who so nobly served and will not be forgotten.

Dr. Richard I. Lester
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"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."