Today is Memorial Day, when we honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Many of my generation know someone who died fighting in Vietnam, and many more know people who came back alive but mentally broken especially after the “non-welcome” they got coming back home. There were others, too, such as Lee Ellis, who was a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the name given to the prisoner of war camp where Ellis spent 1,955 days with other POWs such as John McCain.

I was honored to attend a book party for Lee, who just wrote a book titled, “Leading with Honor, Leadership Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton.” In celebration of his 39 years of freedom, he wrote the book about the lessons he acquired there. As a consultant now, he took what he learned about resilience, commitment to mission and inner strength and translated them into what it takes to lead in business.

Without getting too uncomfortable, Col. Ellis tells of amazing heroics. He talks about the code they used to communicate, how they spent hours in physically miserable positions to be on guard so they could use their code without the guards finding out. He tells the story of how one of his officers did not keep with the military code of honor and was actually removed from his position by a junior officer. It is an amazing story. Col. Ellis talked to a friend of mine about the book and, although I did not get the chance to sit down with him, this Memorial Day I would like to share some of his insights.

Col. Ellis says no matter who we are we face challenges and fears. In the POW camps, he got to see how “our greatest leaders confronted their own fears and managed to inspire the rest of us with their commitment to our mission and to return home, with honor.” He said they were able to do that by “realizing that each man in the camp brought individual strengths – and weaknesses – to the mission and by building cohesive teams that utilized those talents.” He also said they had to stay positive in the hope that they would one day obtain freedom. Col. Ellis believes that today “Americans are struggling in a challenging economy and that the lessons he learned about team building and understanding strengths and weaknesses are important to helping us through those challenges.”

He also speaks about “guarding character.” He means guarding your own character.
Col. Ellis says that while in captivity they were forced to sign documents saying they were being treated humanely after being tortured. What worries him is some of us have the mentality of his captors and, to those people, the end justifies the means and there is a willingness to cut corners. He says the way around this is to “guard your character” and keep your moral compass “on your true north, and not be tempted by ego, or by greed or other distractions.” He says this is important whether you’re leading a multi-billion-dollar corporation or leading a child through life.

Perhaps Ellis’ most important point is how people banding together can make a huge influence. Family members of POWs came together and made bracelets with POW names on them. For an issue that was faceless because there were few photographs, it made the issue of POWs personal. It made Americans and our leadership pay attention. Ellis says this effort is an example of how ordinary Americans working together can change things. In the case of the POW bracelets, it changed the policy of a communist government a half a world away.

His chapter on leadership called “Free the Captives” points out that each of us is captive to our own fears and bitterness. He says we often look back on our lives, on decisions we have made, with “anger, or regret or with sadness.” He says he could have led his life as a victim or not, and victims make poor leaders as well as unhappy people. Perhaps Col. Ellis was on to something early, when he came home, before the current scientific literature on forgiveness. He says that if you detect bitterness in yourself, or anger, you must set about a structured mission “to free the captives” to “look what is possible, rather than stew over the past.”

This Memorial Day, we must look back, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. And as Col. Ellis says in “Leading with Honor,” it is important also that as a nation we look to what is possible.

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