Lee Ellis learned about leadership from the brutal prisoner-of-war camps of North Vietnam. Shot down early in his Air Force career, he watched how his superiors handled the pressures of captivity and wondered what he might do differently.
Decades later, the retired colonel still leans on those lessons in his career as a leadership expert, advising Fortune 500 executives and other workers on the fine points of team building and human behavior.
The work brings him to Charlotte June 5, where Ellis will address the Strategic Leadership Forum of the Carolinas, a professional group for business and human resources executives.
Ellis spoke with the Observer recently about his experience in Vietnam, the qualities of successful leaders and his new book, “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You spent more than five years in captivity. What did you learn about leadership?
Because we had a lot of time to reflect and think about things, I really got to know myself. What are your strengths; what are your struggles; what are you afraid of? Because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. Are you living to be authentic?
I learned to be positive and expect a good outcome, even in difficult circumstances. Communication is really big. We really had to work hard to communicate, because the enemy tried to keep us from communicating. Another big one is bouncing back. We got knocked down and tortured, and what we learned was resilience.
Also honor, which really is about doing what’s right. Our leadership there was so extraordinary, because those guys led when there was no real reward other than honor and doing the right thing.
Q: So the lessons you picked up came as much from watching others as reflecting on your own experience?
I’m watching different styles of leadership, as a junior-ranking guy, and watching how different people respond in different ways. They say values are more caught than taught – I was just catching certain mindsets about leadership that were very important.
You couldn’t pretend there, for instance. Whatever was there was real. Whatever you said, you were going to be put to the test.
Seeing that, and seeing the sacrifice, I said as a leader I must be willing to do the very best you can, but I also have to be willing to sacrifice and not be afraid.
I’ve always wanted to be a leader. I’ve always wanted to be in charge. In the POW camp, I wasn’t, so I was always thinking. I learned a lot by watching these guys and how they did it. In the Air Force, I was a leader for most of my career after I got back. I had a chance to put some of this stuff to the test, and I found it worked – not because I was the smartest guy in the room, but because I had good leadership and was surrounded by good people.
Q: How do those lessons apply to the corporate workplace?
Leadership always makes the difference, good or bad. The leader has to see the vision of where you’re going to be and help people get to those ends. Sometimes just a change in leadership can revolutionize the organization’s success.
If you’re in a position of leadership, you really need to run a diagnostic test on yourself: Are you working to make a difference? Are you spending too much time on the little things that somebody else should do?
Another big one is courage. As a leader, you’re going to have to make tough decisions. You’ll need courage, and you’ll need to lead with honor. It’s a character thing. We see the recently ousted CEO of Yahoo saying he received two degrees when he only got one. People just don’t have the courage to live with things the way they are. Without accountability and without courage, you’re not able to do the right thing.
Q: Have the qualities of successful leaders changed as a result of today’s uncertain economy?
When I think of the kind of leadership we need today, first of all it has to be, as always, people with character. If you’re not trustworthy, people don’t want to follow you. Second, you need a vision for where you want to go. Those two have always been there.
What’s different now is we really need innovation. You need people around you who are creative, even if you’re not. Companies are having to adapt to a new world. We just all have to be ready to change, and part of that is leading people through the change.
Q: What is the most important attribute of a good leader?
I would pick the healthiest person I can find. By healthy I mean a real, authentic self-confidence. Because healthy people are able to listen to other people’s ideas and are not threatened. If they’re healthy about themselves, they can lead other people.
If you spend all your time worrying about your competition, rather than just doing your job really well, that’s not healthy. Fearful people, or people who really deep down feel inferior or insufficient, sooner or later, they’re going to get exposed. They’re going to show bad judgment. And leaders need good judgment.
Know yourself, know who you are and know what you’re committed to, and don’t be afraid to live up to what you’re committed to. If you do that, you’re probably going to do all right.
Q: What else should successful leaders be thinking about?
You can’t do this alone. It’s too difficult. You need encouragement. You need people who will say, ‘Well, why would you want to do that?’ I could have a good idea, but I’m too emotionally involved in it. I need someone I can bounce this off of, to fight as a team.
My wife provides that, a couple of my best friends, my professional peers. I have these different relationships that I can call on, and I’m not too proud to call on them. Going back to the healthy part – I think the healthy part of a good leader is to be humble.
About the author
Business Reporter, The Charlotte Observer
Kirsten is a seasoned business journalist with experience covering banking and finance news, economic trends and labor market issues. Known for thoughtful research, accurate reporting and clean copy in deadline stories, enterprise pieces and her award-winning business blog. Follow her on Twitter at @kirstenpittman.