Former POW shares leadership concepts with Shaw airmen

Retired colonel who served in Vietnam explains lessons he learned

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 4/8/18

A leadership expert from a similar background but with likely a different perspective on the concept spoke to about 400 airmen at Shaw Air Force Base on Friday.

Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, addressed members …

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Former POW shares leadership concepts with Shaw airmen

Retired colonel who served in Vietnam explains lessons he learned

Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, speaks to members of the 20th Fighter Wing on Friday at Shaw Air Force Base as a cover image of his book, Leading with Honor, is shown in the background.
Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, speaks to members of the 20th Fighter Wing on Friday at Shaw Air Force Base as a cover image of his book, Leading with Honor, is shown in the background.
BRUCE MILLS / THE SUMTER ITEM
Posted

A leadership expert from a similar background but with likely a different perspective on the concept spoke to about 400 airmen at Shaw Air Force Base on Friday.

Retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, addressed members of the 20th Fighter Wing on Friday as part of a motivational speaking engagement called "Leading with Honor."

A POW for five-and-a-half years at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Ellis shared many familiar "leadership checklist" concepts - such as the importance of courage, staying positive and being resilient - but also shared some deeper concepts only learned through faith in God and during heavy trials and suffering, he said.

On Nov. 7, 1967, Ellis, then a 24-year-old combat fighter pilot in the Air Force, was shot down by the North Vietnamese, captured and held as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton until March 1973.

Now a corporate leadership consultant, speaker and author, Ellis shared lessons he learned from his own actions and those of other American POWs at the camp on the importance of persevering in "doing the right thing," confronting your doubts and fears in life and being confident but staying humble.

Ellis said always doing the right thing and "not believing you're a victim" was hard to do at the camp when constantly faced with torture and interrogation by the North Vietnamese Army.

While the enemy's goal was getting anti-war propaganda from the POWs, Ellis said living up to the military code of conduct and "returning home with honor, on our terms," was the prisoners' goal.

"That was going to be the battle day after day because they wanted us to go the other way," Ellis said. "Somehow, we had to find a way to stay positive. When you go negative and believe you're a victim, you're gone. Somehow, we're going to fight this battle day by day, and we're going to come out the other end."

Ellis said the POWs needed the mutual support of one another to do this.

One of the most fundamental leadership concepts, according to Ellis, is leading yourself first and the necessity to change your behavior, if necessary.

"Know yourself," Ellis said. "Know the fact that you will be afraid and scared and put things off sometimes because you have doubts and fears. Everybody's got them. There are no perfect leaders, so managing yourself and growing yourself is very important."

Finally, Ellis said, great leaders and successful people are able to accomplish the organizational mission and are also able to take care of the people, as well. Their subordinates and others know the leader cares for them.

A critical piece to this, according to Ellis, is being confident but also humble and not self-centered.

"This idea of leading - and being a successful person even - it's really about taking two things that don't seemingly go together. They're paradoxical, but you got to do both," Ellis said. "And that's the key to life and leadership - being able to do both. Knowing when to be friendly and caring and when to be tough. You can be caring and tough. You can be tough and caring."