Interview With Lee Ellis – Author
Career Planning, Leadership Stories
The Parnassus Group recently spoke with Lee Ellis about his experience as a POW during the Vietnam War where he was in the same camp with John McCain. How did American military leaders in the brutal POW camps of North Vietnam inspire their followers for six, seven and even eight years to remain committed to the mission, resist a cruel enemy, and return home with honor? What leadership principles engendered such extreme devotion, perseverance and teamwork? For his wartime service in Vietnam, Lee was awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Valor device, the Purple Heart and POW Medal. Lee resumed his air force career serving in command of a flying squadron and leadership development organization before retiring as a Colonel. He is a devoted father and husband living in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia and traveling internationally as a speaker and strategic leadership advisor.
Q: What was the impact of having men around you as deep encouragers, given the situation?
A: That was incredibly important. First of all, if you have never been alone in very difficult and scary circumstances, you don’t know what alone and scary is. You have no idea. Could you imagine being a prisoner of war in a communist country and you are locked up? You are alone and they are telling you that you will never go home and you are going to be tried for war crimes. You are helpless, so that situation when you are alone and helpless, other than your own will and attitude, having someone else around you is vital. We would risk our lives just to reach out to each other. When someone was alone, we would take great risk to reach out and encourage them because that is the worst place you could be.
One of the things I tell people today is that the Navy Seals never fight alone, fighter pilots try to never fight alone because when you are alone the odds go up against you. To keep your positive attitude, your energy, your fighting spirit whether you are in business or whatever it is in life, you need support. You need that fellowship around you that can encourage you and that can give wisdom and hold you accountable. Being alone is a dangerous place.
Q: When you look at some of the stamina that developed in the camp from you and others who had to endure a lot of hardship, what was your mental outlook that kept you focused and hopeful?
A: I think some of that is my personality and a lot of if was the leadership around me. I tend to be a positive person and have never been a worrier, which has been a blessing. I did worry some in those early months in not knowing what was going to happen. My initial thought was, if I can make it six months, President Johnson will have to win this war to get re-elected. And he is a politician so he will end the war and we will be home by the summer of 1968 and I will make the Mexico Olympics. Well he tricked me and decided not to run. So we sat there and after six months, I said I could make it one more year. After that I said I could make it two more years and I did, but it was more like three and a half.
You have to keep setting goals where you can mentally and emotionally handle it. Then you set another goal and meet that goal and pretty soon you are walking yourself one day at a time into the future and toward a goal. We also had personal development goals. For instance, I learned differential calculus with a piece of broken red roof tile writing on a concrete floor in the corner of the room. A fellow who majored in math from the Naval Academy taught me differential calculus. Then I memorized Spanish words sitting and walking around the cell and started speaking Spanish every day and when I came home I was pretty fluent in Spanish.
We did those kinds of things to keep us busy. I learned to stay occupied and move toward some goals. We also had these great leaders who really made a difference and they were positive also. Leaders give people hope in difficult situations and they gave us hope and built a culture around the belief that we would someday go back home. We had to do our duty and we were going to have to suffer, but in the end we were going to be victorious and walk out of there and go home. They built the culture and set the example. We had no reason not to believe that we weren’t going to go home at some point.
Q: What does it mean for you and those around you to keep the focus off of complaining about the difficulty of circumstances?
A: There were some guys scattered amongst the 500 or so of us who were dark clouds, kind of whiners and negative. Most who were there remained positive. I think there were enough of the positive people that we just kind of snuffed out the negative. We kind of overrode them. Most people didn’t want to hear anything negative, but one of my cellmates said that it would probably be five years before we got to go home. I couldn’t handle that and discounted that and argued with him because it wasn’t logical to me. It wasn’t something that I could accept at the time and pushed back on it and got my own schedule of six months, a year then two years because I could handle that.
Q: Is there a shortlist of “footstompers” that you think are really critical and that you wanted readers to remember as significant to navigate their own leadership pathways?
A: Know yourself and be authentic. Authentic leadership flows from the inside out. You will be most successful and fulfilled when you clarify who you uniquely are in terms of purpose, passion and personality and then lead authentically from that core. So I think the “footstomper” is be authentic. Be on the outside what you are on the inside and if you don’t feel like you can do that then start growing on the inside. You will be more authentic and accepted if you are honest and humble, realizing that you aren’t perfect at everything. People don’t want to see a pretender.
Guard your character. If you are going to be authentic, you have to guard your character. To guard it, you have to clarify your values and what you stand for. You also need a team around you to support you. One of the more difficult yet important ones is to confront your doubts and fears. Lean into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right.
Q: While at the camp, did you ever envision telling your story in a book?
A: No, I never did. The idea of writing a book, shoot, I could hardly write a two-page paper in school. I hated doing that kind of stuff with a passion. I am a person who was passionate about his message and influencing people in the right way. I would have never written a book, but one day I was working for Larry Burkett about a year after I retired from the Air Force in 1991. He came into my office and asked if I’d like to write a book. I told him that I never thought about it. He believed we could write a good book on career planning and career decision-making. That was my first book. In 2003 I wrote another and in 2010 and 2011, I wrote Leading With Honor.
When I had written about six chapters, I sent them off to two authors and one couple who read a lot because I knew they would be honest with me. All of them said the same thing, which was that I had some pretty good stories, but we are not sure about the purpose and the organization kind of left them hanging. I knew they were right and so I put it on the shelf for six months and thought it through. During that time, I realized that I was probably the only person to write a leadership book based around the POW situation and highlight the incredible leadership we had there. I felt it was something I could contribute to the body of literature on leadership because it was such an unusual situation that may never be completely matched in terms of the courage, character, strength and dedication that our leaders provided. I wanted to honor that and tell that story as well as the story of the 24-year-old kid being there and seeing all this. I also integrated what I have learned as a leader and a leadership coach and trainer. That turned out to be much harder and took me a lot longer to write.
Q: What are some of the hardest parts about leading? As well as the most rewarding?
A: I think I have a pretty clear picture about a lot of the issues of leadership. I haven’t seen a lot change in the last 20 or 30 years. A leader is always walking a tight rope. A leader should always feel a tension between mission and people, between results and relationships. There is a tension of feeling like you are being pulled to one side by your mission/goals and then by your people on the other side. That is where the rubber meets the road. You have to be able to work both sides of the coin. By nature, very few people are wired to do both. You are wired toward results by personality or toward relationships by personality. You have to get results to stay in business and accomplish the mission. You also have to take care of the people because if you don’t, you won’t have results. They are the ones doing a lot of the work and the ones fighting a lot of the battles. You have to figure out how to support them and keep their morale up, energized and inspired even in difficult times.
Your integrity and character are a big part of that. Then there is the balance between mission and people, relationship and results. Beyond that, it is sharpening the saw both technically, professionally and from a leadership standpoint your continuing to learn and grow. In its simplest form that’s what leadership is all about. It is about having the character so that people can trust you. You have to ride that fine line and when you need results. You may need to go to the team and say I love you, but we have to work on Saturday. Other times you have to go to the boss and say I cant push my people any harder. We have been pushing full scale and I have to give them some slack. That takes courage.
Q: What are some things that you see in natural leaders? What intangibles in a person make you say, “He or she has it.”
A: Regardless of what your personality is, you can be a great leader. It will look different for everyone. I can show you CEOs who are both introverts and extraverts. I can show you people who are more controlling and take charge as well as some who aren’t, but both can be successful. You take a healthy person who has courage and they can flex a little bit easier. Can an introvert go out and socialize all day long, no, but they can learn to do it enough to be successful. Can an extraverted person learn to focus and get the mission done? Yes, absolutely.
There are some natural leadership traits that fit certain jobs better, but I think the main thing is you have to be authentic and believe in yourself. You also have to have humility. If you have a solid combination of these things, I believe you will be a great leader. There are situations that require different skills, but in general I would say that you can be a good leader with any personality as long as you have the courage to do what needs to be done.
Q: What is the importance of striving to not only lead, but to lead the right way?
A: I think it goes back to finding your purpose. I am not against making money and I am out here trying to do that, but it’s finding out what you are on this earth to do besides just fattening your wallet. I see my opportunities to influence other people and people are attracted to and influenced by others who are authentic. Are you concerned about your fellow man and others around you? If so, you are going to have influence. When I played sports, the guys who were always elected captain weren’t always the flashiest, but the ones who were leading by example. We are always looking for someone to look up to.