A prisoner of war held in the “Hanoi Hilton” for five and a half years shared his compelling story of imprisonment and success with U.S. Air cadets Feb. 21-22 during the 2013 National Character and Leadership Symposium at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Like Sen. John McCain and others, retired Col. Lee Ellis was held captive after his plane was shot down Nov. 7, 1967.
Ellis spoke to the NCLS crowd just one month shy of the 40th anniversary of his March 14, 1973 release from the infamous prison on the leadership lessons he learned during his confinement.
“The story is so powerful, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a cadet, four-star general, CEO or grandmother,” Ellis said. “Courage was the most outstanding quality during that experience, put together with character and authentic leadership.”
The 14 lessons, featured in Ellis’ book “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” include knowing yourself; being authentic; guarding your character; confronting your doubts and fears; and staying positive, Ellis said.
“Until you know what your strengths, struggles, passions and purpose are, it’s hard to have the confidence to actually have courage, because you might be worried somebody will see the real you,” Ellis said.
Ellis’s personal definition of courage is “leading into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right,” he said.
“I’ve coached CEOs who didn’t want to give positive feedback because they said they felt uncomfortable, when really it was their fear of looking stupid, hokey or being too soft,” Ellis said, who coaches Fortune 500 senior executives. “I’ve also coached people on how to fire somebody because they didn’t have the courage to do it. It’s not just about courage under fire but courage in your day-to-day leadership.”
As an Air Force officer, Ellis ran an ROTC program and served as vice commandant of Maxwell Air Force Base’s Squadron Officer School.
“Most of my last 20 years has been dedicated to helping people and developing leaders,” he said.
Ellis entered the Air Force in 1965 after receiving his commission from the University of Georgia’s ROTC program as a distinguished graduate. Ellis then attended flight school and F-4 Phantom combat crew training with Capt. Lance Sijan.
“In Vietnam, we weren’t 18-year-old kids,” Ellis said. “I had been through ROTC, flight school, combat crew training and had already flown 53 combat missions. We were pretty seasoned warriors, and had a real commitment to follow the code of conduct and be a good soldier.”
Faith in God, the U.S. and his fellow Airmen brought him hope amidst continual torture and seclusion in North Vietnam, he said.
“Even though we were isolated, we still had covert communication and camaraderie,” Ellis said. “We were in it together and it was us against them.
“Pilots often like to think they’re in control, even when they’re not,” Ellis said. “We were mostly pilots and aircrew who believed that someday we were going to leave,” Ellis said. “I personally believed that when they didn’t kill me, and I made it through my ejection and capture, that God had a purpose in my life and I was going to somehow walk out of there someday.”
Despite the hardship, there was a hidden treasure to be found among the trials of being a POW, as the experience gave many who survived the experience the strength of character to overcome difficulties and achieve success.
“There are 16 admirals and generals that came out of the POW camps,” Ellis said. “Out of 400 to 500 people, there have been two U.S. senators, one of them a nominee for president, a number of congressmen, CEOs and two or three presidents of universities after the experience. I think we all, in a way, never want to do it again, but benefited from the hardships we had there. We learned lessons that have stood us well throughout the years.”
Among his other awards, Ellis is the recipient of two Silver Star Medals, the Legion of Merit Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart Medal and the POW Medal.