Colonel Lee Ellis narrates time spent as a POW in Vietnam.
By Andy East
Leading is not always easy, but it can often be the difference between success and failure, prosperity and decline, or in the case of Colonel Lee Ellis (retired, U.S. Air Force), life and death. In his most recent book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, Ellis recounts his experience as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and takes a practical look at the leadership qualities of his fellow prisoners that allowed them to endure with honor during five years of imprisonment at the hands of the Viet Cong.
Ellis recently sat down with Ruth King, founder and CEO of Georgia-based Internet broadcasting company Profitability Revolution Paradigm, which specializes in small businesses, to discuss his book and offer leadership advice to individuals and businesses alike. ATX Man offers an inside look at Ellis’ award-winning leadership principles that can be applied to your life, even if you’re not trapped behind enemy lines.
“Leadership always makes a difference, good or bad,” Ellis says. “It can make a difference the wrong way or the positive way. And I challenge all people to stop and think, ‘How are you influencing others? Are you actually putting some energy and time in thinking through how you’re leading?’
“We all have doubts. We all have fear. We all have discomforts. I can tell you how to spot fear. It’s when you start feeling uncomfortable and start holding back or you’re procrastinating doing something that you really need to do as a leader. That’s because there’s fear underneath there. You’re afraid of what might happen. If I confront that situation, they may not like me or I might make a mistake or I might step out too quickly.”
In November 1967, Ellis was confronted with a situation that no military personnel would wish upon anyone: Ellis and aircraft commander Captain Ken Fisher were forced to eject from their severely damaged F-4C Phantom fighter in enemy territory in North Vietnam.
Enemy combatants quickly swarmed on Ellis and Fisher, later taking the U.S. pilots to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam. The prison, christened the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners, was used by North Vietnamese forces to interrogate and torture Americans captured during the Vietnam War. U.S. prisoners were subjected to numerous abuses, including savage beatings and prolonged isolation. Some notable prisoners that spent time at the Hanoi Hilton include Senator John McCain and former U.S. vice presidential candidate James Stockdale.
“Our leaders were fabulous. They suffered the most,” Ellis says. “They were tortured the most often and the most severely, and yet they bounced back and set the example for us time and time again.”
“…[P]eople are watching you to see how are you going to perform, what are you going to do when the pressure’s on and you have to make that hard decision,” Ellis continues. “And if you show courage and do the right thing—we all know what the right thing is 99 times out of 100—if you do the right thing, you set that example, they’re going to try to live up to that when it comes their turn.”
The winner of the 2012 International Book Awards in the Business & Management Category, Ellis’ new book draws upon his five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton to provide a practical guide to leadership that anyone, from small-business owners to parents and students, can apply to their lives.
“One of my biggest messages to leaders is you must confront your doubts and fears,” Ellis says. “It does get easier, and easier and easier because you’ve worked your way through [your doubts and fears]. Now, you may run into a bigger fear later, but you work your way through that one [too]. I think that’s what happened in the POW camps. We learned to confront those fears and each time, it got a little easier to confront those doubts and fears and move ahead and do what we knew was right.”
After years of imprisonment, Ellis, along with McCain and several other prisoners, were released from the Hanoi Hilton in March 1973 and flown to Clarke Air Base in the Philippines before Ellis was reunited with his family in Alabama. Upon returning to the U.S., Ellis remained in the U.S. Air Force, rising in rank to colonel.