Strong leadership and character are closely linked. Both are visible in many settings by anybody at any time. Over 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Colonel Lee Ellis observed leadership in the most trying of conditions. His time in the Hanoi Hilton and other camps helped him formulate 14 leadership lessons that helped him and others stay alive. His book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, where he outlines those lessons, is an inspiring story of courage and leadership. It is our honor to present him as this month’s Featured Leader.
In doing my research on Col. Ellis, I found several instances where he said, “There is no honor without courage.” I began the interview by asking him to explain what he means by this.
“From my experience as a junior ranking prisoner in the camp, I was able to observe the leadership of our very highest and best officers and occasionally some of the worst. The most consistent theme was courage. In the POW camps, all the niceties of leadership were immediately stripped away along with the former advantages of power and authority. Higher ranking officers became the ones that were focused on the most by the enemy. They were subject to torture more often; were more isolated, were beaten more often and yet they still had to lead, make policy and then live by the policies they made. They could not hide their interactions with the enemy because it was obvious to everyone; however, they were transparent about it. When they were beaten into submission, they would admit what they had done. The environment was amazingly transparent. There was no pretending, which quickly revealed true character. In that process, I saw that courage was the key to leading with honor. There was always temptation to take a shortcut or say something to get the enemy off your back. Courage is the facilitator to honor. Without courage, it is hard to do the honorable thing day after day. The honorable thing is usually the hard road to travel.”
How can your experience translate to today’s generation of leaders?
“What I do is present the realities of leadership. I present the reality of the life they’re living, the realities of the world in which they live. In that world, they’re going to face tough decisions and have to choose ahead of time where they stand and what they value. If that decision is not made in advance, the temptation to take the easy way out will be great. I think younger generations understand that, conceptually; the challenge is to find role models who demonstrate that same level of courage to do the right thing. That is where I think the older generation has to step up and show young leaders what that looks like. In some cases, we are seeing the younger generation actually stepping up and showing the older generation. Regardless of position, rank, or authority level, everyone has the power to set an example of leading with honor and courage to do the right thing and to remind others what the right thing is. It is not enough to just be honest, one must lead by example.”
How does collaborative leadership play out in your philosophy?
“I am a big believer that one person has to own a project. Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy said, “If you don’t have one person in charge, you don’t have anybody in charge.” Ultimately, there has to be somebody responsible for overseeing. That person is responsible for making things happen and taking care of the people. Having said that, I am a big believer in collaboration built on alignment. As alignment comes, collaboration becomes possible. To get collaboration, you have to establish a community, communication and clarity, which is reached through the building of mutual trust.”
“I am big on collaborative teamwork. Collaboration is essential because it indicates trust. If you have trust, you can get a lot of things done in a hurry and be very productive. I believe a leader needs to listen to others on his team. That’s how I have had a successful career. I’ve always surrounded myself with people smarter than me.”
The leadership structure in many organizations is changing from top down to a more flat approach. How do you see this affecting leadership in those types of organizations?
“I really like the least amount of structure possible because it brings people closer to the action. Action is where things get done, and the closer you are to it, the better you understand what’s going on. Better decisions can be made and better feedback can be given and received. Better feedback, means better decisions by leaders and more effective coaching for the team. The problem is, as organizations get bigger, that becomes harder to do. Figuring out ways of capitalizing on being large and minimizing the impact of bureaucracy is one of the most difficult challenges, especially in large organizations today. Moving from a purely entrepreneurial start up organization to a growing midsize, some structure is necessary. That is one of the advantages of growing- creating structure, adding preventative processes, but, you also have to keep in mind you are building layers. When there are too many layers it gets unwieldy and inefficient, leadership begins to fall by the wayside and management picks up steam.”
Can you speak to a leader’s responsibility to maintain his or her core leadership principles or skills?
“I think it’s critical that leaders sharpen their own saw and grow themselves. If they do not, they will get caught up in their own reputations, headlines or in bureaucracy.”
“I think you have to spend time reflecting on your core principles and skills. The way I do that is to read other authors, leadership books, biographies and magazine articles. I try to stay abreast. All of those help me refresh and recommit to my values, what I stand for. I have to ask myself whether I have the courage to stand for them and what that will look like when I do.”
“I think it is very important to build awareness first, and skills second. A leader needs to be working constantly on speaking and writing skills, perhaps writing blogs and memos or giving presentations to team-members or professionally within your industry. Also, an understanding of psychology and emotional intelligence is necessary. I’m amazed at the number of leaders that really don’t have a good understanding of emotional intelligence and still have a fear of emotions in the workplace. Emotions are where we get all of our energy to do work. ”
Do you find in organizations today, that their leadership development programs are lacking in any one principle or skill?
“There are two or three things that I think are extremely important and they are not getting as much emphasis as I think they need. The first one is building trust. Leaders need to take the time to build trust. It takes time, relationships and getting to know each other; I’m not sure how much people are trained to talk about that. My experience has been, they know that they need to do some teambuilding and they automatically think that’s Kumbayah and hugs, but what I’m talking about is getting to know each other. I don’t do any consulting without first conducting personality assessments. A personality assessment is the common denominator to understanding somebody’s leadership style, his or her strengths, struggles and fears. Knowing that about each other helps to build trust among team-members.”
“I also think the issue of accountability is huge and doesn’t get enough attention. Accountability is often absent when clarity is also lacking. Accountability and clarity go hand in hand, then come values and culture. Leaders have to build from their own values. Organizational values have to be operative and not aspirational. You can have aspirational values, but you need to be clear that that is what they are. For instance, if the value is against gossiping, but we still gossip, then it’s not a value. It’s an aspirational value. Having those few core values, then preaching them from the highest to lowest levels so your values are inculcated into daily work life, develop a work culture. I’m big on culture; it will hold you together and give you the freedom to empower people in ways nothing else will, i.e., this is who we are and this is what we believe. I help teams build ground rules or rules of engagement for how they will work together, basically agreeing, we hold each other accountable.”
“The last one is professional development of others. Leaders have to be developing their people all along the way, all the time. Setting an example, mentoring and coaching, making expectations known, clarifying why you do things a certain way and telling stories about how you learned about this value or this leadership principle, are all part of that goal.”
Do you think it is possible to change a culture? For example, when a new leader comes in.
“I think you have a challenge on your hands. It is doable but requires real commitment. You are going to have to articulate the new values very clearly, and show your commitment to them by walking them out, often times in the most difficult ways every second of every day. The new leader will need to identify who on the team is on board and who is not. Those who display or articulate an unwillingness to participate must be replaced. Then you just beat the drum and keep reminding people why they are there and holding one another accountable. You hire based on the new culture. Rewards and performance ratings become tied to the new culture and only then can people see that you really mean business. It goes back to the book, Built to Last by Jim Collins where he talked about the yin and the yang and preserving the core. The core is values and culture. If it’s not strong you have to go in and destroy the old core and build a new one. That is something that takes time.”
Many leaders today are great strategists and visionaries. They provide the directive to achieve their goals but are weak in the areas of accountability and follow up. Can you give leaders advice on comprehending the magnitude of their role?
“Leaders, just like everybody else need to manage and lead the accomplishment of their goals. In other words, check numbers and get objective data. This is where the managing part of leadership comes in- one has to both inspire and encourage people, energize and hold them accountable. Former IBM CEO, Gerstner said, “People don’t do what you expect but what you inspect.” You can’t expect your goals to come to fruition if you don’t have open channels for getting feedback. A leader must inspect whether the goals are on track or behind schedule. There’s nothing worse than putting great vision and strategy in place, then walking away expecting it to automatically happen. As the CEO, you are the conductor of the orchestra, and you can’t do that blindfolded. You need to establish eye contact with the people while getting feedback. It’s the responsibility of the leader to manage the process. To ensure it’s on track and when it goes off track, a leader needs to start asking questions like, ‘How did we get off track?’ and ’What do we need to do to get back on track?’ “Do we have the right resources and the right people?”, “has the market changed since we initiated this project?” My experience has been that this scenario happens most often in entrepreneurial organizations where leaders aren’t accustomed to directly managing people. Generally, in large organizations, the CEO has the information he needs. It’s people at lower levels that don’t have the skills to hold others accountable for results.”
What advice can you share with an aspiring leader?
“To aspiring leaders I say recognize this tremendous opportunity you have to influence other people, to develop other people and help them succeed. Obviously, everyone wants their organization to succeed and success means results. To get results, what we really need is for the people to succeed because if everyone is succeeding, the organization is going to thrive. It’s going to be a place where people want to work, which drives productivity. Lastly, I want leaders to be inspired to see the magnitude of their role and the opportunity they have. One final thought, if they don’t like leading and they don’t like dealing with people problems, holding people accountable while also patting them on the back; if they don’t want to walk that street, then I’d rather they move on and not pursue leadership. I think you have to be honest about that. It’s not for everybody.”
Please speak to the importance of nurturing up-and-coming leaders
“We’ve got to understand that if we don’t develop the next generation of leaders, they may not get developed. Leaders need to be aware of their influence on the next generation, because values are caught more than taught. I was sitting in the conference room with a group of leaders discussing one particular leader in the organization that yells and curses at his employees, when one man started laughing. He said he understood that behavior because that is how he used to operate. Everybody was surprised because he is not that type of leader today. He explained when he was a young leader, that is what his boss had done and he thought that was what leaders were supposed to do. It’s the realization of the power you have, how it shapes the way people see you and themselves. The acknowledgement of the up and comers have that you see in them potential that they may not. There are so many famous leaders in their role because somebody recognized their potential, encouraged them, and then helped develop it. I think that’s one of the best investments we can make in our future- to develop the next generation of leaders. From a practical standpoint it makes so much sense because you’re building a stronger company, a company that will become more profitable, have longevity and be the type of organization you can be proud to be a part of. From a legacy standpoint, it’s huge.”
Talk about how one’s character plays into one’s leadership style
“Character is the foundation because if people do not trust you, they do not want to follow you. Therefore, you are going to have to use your power and authority to influence people to follow you. They really don’t want to follow you but may, driven solely by the need for a paycheck. Their heart won’t be in it in the same way it would be if trust was part of the equation. When people don’t trust their leader, it becomes every person for himself. Natural survival instincts take over. That’s why it is so foundational. You cannot have cohesion, if you don’t have trust. Second is courage; without courage you really can’t have good character. You may be honest but if you won’t stand up for what is right, you’re lacking character.”
“I close my presentations that way, with the trailer from the Lord of the Rings, and it says, “There can be no triumph without loss. No victory without suffering. No freedom without sacrifice.” I would add the one more, no honor without courage. What I say to that is, if you want to be a person of character, you must have courage and the way you exercise courage is to lean into the pain of your fear to do the right thing. Lean into the pain of your fear because it will feel unnatural, it will be scary, you’ll have doubts, and you’ll be afraid of what’s going to happen. That’s why you want a good team around you. I don’t think you can have good character over the long haul without a team around you.”
What did you hope to accomplish in your book Leading with Honor? And what was the moment you realized you needed and wanted to share these leadership principles with an audience?
“I wanted to tell the story of the great, incredible and courageous POW leaders. First off, I thought they deserved to be honored and second, it was going to be instructive for readers, it had been instructive for me for those 5 ½ years I was there. Third, to provide a leadership book that was story based, because I think stories are emotionally powerful, and readers are much more likely to remember and can more easily apply them. Fourth, I wanted to relate to today’s work environment, so I included case studies in each chapter supplied by my own clients. The purpose was to illustrate ways those lessons are applied in today’s work place.”
“I felt it was the right time to write the book. I’d never written a book about my POW experiences before, because I never wanted the attention of being a POW to drive people’s perceptions of me, I just want to be good at what I do and let the chips fall where they may.”
Who are some leaders you admire and why?
“I admire a lot of leaders. Some of the leaders I admire the most are my clients, because they have the courage to want to grow and strive to become even better leaders. To their credit, they also want to take their teams with them. To me that is somebody who is really truly self-assured and confident. I look for the good in people, and of course, I also notice the bad. I try to filter the latter out because I don’t want to be focused on it, and instead am learning to concentrate solely on the good. For that reason, I have a hard time singling out a person. There are no perfect leaders; they are all flawed. The ones I admire most are those who display strong character, get results and take care of their people.”
Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, in which he shares his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps. As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development and succession planning. For more information, please visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.