Ever wondered what it took to emerge from the crucible of war a stronger leader? Join me as I am privileged to spend time with retired United States Air Force Colonel Lee Ellis, author of the award-winning book, Leading with Honor. Our conversation weaves through his inspiring journey from being a prisoner of war in Vietnam to the birth of his mission - developing leaders of character, courage, and commitment. Six years on, the impact of his book on my own leadership journey remains profound.
As you listen, prepare to gain insightful lessons on the importance of relationships in leadership, drawn from Lee's experiences in the Vietnam War. Discover how character, mission, and people are the cornerstones of effective leadership. Lee shares wisdom on self-management for leaders and the need to reflect on the psychological effects of war. Stay tuned for an honest discussion on his POW experience in Vietnam, where he and his fellow soldiers confronted bitterness to walk out as free men.
In our final chat, Lee delves into societal perceptions of Vietnam veterans upon their return. We throw light on his book, Leading with Honor, and the relevance of good role models, love in leadership, and the Honor Code. This episode is more than a conversation; it's an inspiring journey through an American hero's life, revealing invaluable lessons for the leaders of tomorrow. Don't miss it!
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Intro 00:00 – 04:36
Regardless of the era, TWO lessons and principles that can be applied to every leadership situation
05:25 – 08:21 Lee Ellis Well, I think it always has to be character first, and then mission and people. You have to accomplish the mission, you have to take care of the task and the assignments that have to be done, but you also have to take care of the people and you have to care about them. And the reality is, human beings have a heart and in their heart, so to speak, in their mind, their emotions, they want to be valued. Every human being wants to be valued, wants to be cared about and wants to feel worthy. Well, when you smile at somebody, you're going to be valued. You're saying you're valuable and I care about you. Even a nice smile makes people feel better. But when you manage people and you listen to them and say what do you think? Or when you say good job on that report you just did, that was excellent, thank you Then you can also sit down and say now, I was expecting you to be finished with this next report by Friday. Tell me what's happening on that one. I don't see it being ready. Are you going to be ready with that? And then you can kind of hold them. I can start to hold them accountable and coach them. So the most important thing is character first, and then you have to be mission focused and have accountability and be clear about what's expected. But you also have to be relationship connected, to let people know You're valuable, you're important. You said people are not machines, they're not computers. They have a heart, they have an emotional core and if that emotional core is feeling bad or nasty or they feel threatened by you, they're not going to perform well. Even when they try, they're not going to perform as well as they could if they felt like you believed in them. They're going to work hard to follow up and try to live up to that and it's just a reality. But a lot of people who haven't been thought about it. And if you stop and think as a leader, you have to stop and think and reflect. Okay, what am I doing? What should I probably not be doing? What should I be doing more of in the future and less of in the future? That's the way you manage yourself to be a better leader.
What the famous four friends would say about Lee Ellis and want him to do
08:33 – 10:53 Lee Ellis In the war in Vietnam I lost four roommates. Two of them were shot down and didn't come back. Before I went down I lost one of my friends, one of my roommates. He'd been my roommate in part of my combat training Tom Kilcullen, a Penn State graduate, we went through undergraduate pilot training together and close friends. He went down in August 67 and that was so hard on me and I just had to say hold it. I got a water fight. Then, two days after I went down, my buddy, Lance Sijan went down. Of course I didn't know about that for a couple years but he was on the ground wounded, badly wounded, for 46 days and captured. They brought him to Hanoi and he died shortly after he got up there. And then one of my other friends and my squadron who was my roommate at Da Nang flying combat he went down ten days after I did and didn't come home. Fantastic, all these people, fantastic people, I admired them so much. And then one of my POW Cellmates for a couple of years died six months before we came home. He got something like typhoid fever and died. So I lost four roommates in that war. That were fantastic guys. I admired them. They were tougher than me and better than me. I thought, well, almost me, and a fighter pilot, you know. But you know, when I, when I think back about them, I really miss them so much. And yet they're not here. And so one day I was thinking about what would they want me, how would they want me to see this, and I came to the conclusion they would want to say don't ever forget me and what I did for my country and for you guys. So remember me, but then go do your thing and don't worry about me. You're on your own. You're going to do well, just go do your thing. Don't let me slow you down, but just kind of remember what I sacrificed.
Thoughts on the psychiatric effects of war
11:08 – 15:54 Lee Ellis Well, the thing about war is that it does impact us psychologically and therefore, if we come home without having time to decompress and deal with it, you're going to have some PTSD problems. That's been consistent even as far back as we know. People who fought in war and lost their buddies and that sort of thing and got shot up themselves have had some emotional problems. The thing that made that we learned in the POW camps. Fortunately, because of the pressure put on them by families and wives and families back home and the people of our country, the communists stopped the torture of the POWs in the fall of 1969, right after Ho Chi Minh died. The new leadership was younger and they could see that they were getting bad PR around the world about their treatment.
That was two years into my captivity. Some guys had already been there four, four and a half years, but for me that was two years after I got there and they stopped. The new leadership decided to stop the torture and for the most part they did, and beating stopped for the most part and it went to a live and let live. And then there was a raid at the Son Tay Camp by the Special Forces. We had moved out of that. I lived there two years but we had moved out and they didn't know for sure that we'd moved out and they raided the camp very successfully. But we were seven miles away in another camp and within 48 hours they moved all POWs back to the Hanoi Hilton and put us in big cells where Vietnamese prisoners had been. Now the Hanoi Hilton Hỏa Lò is a name, but it was named Maison Centrale by the French in the 1890s. It was a Bastille prison built by the French during when they took over Vietnam in the 1800s and it was 14 foot high walls, four or five feet thick, embedded shards of wine bottles, glass, broken glass stick and embedded into the top with an electric wire all the way around. Nobody ever escaped there, but it was a city jail also, so they moved the Vietnamese prisoners out and put us back in these big cells that were probably 1800, 2000 square feet. So I was in a cell, about 1800 square feet, with 52 guys for almost two years, 24 hours a day. It had no walls in it, okay. And so you have to learn to live with people. You have to look, you're going to get to know yourself because they're going to point out some things in you that you can't hide anything the good, the bad, the ugly. When you live with somebody 24 hours a day at work or at home in a POW camp, they're going to see some stuff about you and you had to take ownership for that and work on it. And we did and we actually built an extremely strong relationship, a brotherhood, and a brotherhood is so important, a relational connection at the heart, caring about each other. Now you know, sometimes you say, well, I don't want to be around that and you go down the other part of the room and just leave him alone. But we cared about each other and we would risk our lives for each other. That's how much we cared. So that enabled us to, day by day, get healthy. If we'd have come home in 1968 or 69, after all that torture is going on, we would have been a mess, we would have been crazy, we would have had PTSD above and beyond you could what you could imagine. But we had three years locked up with our buddies who had been through worse than we had, and we had time to get healthy. We knew that if we went home with bitterness, anger about our captors, shame about what we might have given in to do because they could make you do something, they wouldn't let you die, doubts and fears about ourselves would be a mess. We'd be in shackles, handcuffs and leg irons, because anger and bitterness ties you up. It keeps you from being your real you and we understood that and we worked on it every day, day by day. And unfortunately but fortunately we had plenty of time to get healthy emotionally healthy before we came home and we have much lower PTSD than the combat veterans who fought in the South for a year but lost their buddies and got on the airplane and flew back home and sat down with their family at dinner 24 hours later. They hadn't had time to decompress emotionally.
College courses while in captivity, Hanoi fact, and the 4% recovery aspect
16:20 – 19:27 Lee Ellis Well, for us, our mental health was, as I said, a day-to-day thing we were getting. We knew that if we went home with what we had, we'd be a mess, and so we worked on that day by day and when we came home we were so healthy that people just couldn't believe that. You know, we got out and went to the Clark Air Base Hospital and they were prepared for us being a mess and guys were so, you know, calling home, talking to people and everything. We could handle most anything. And some guys called home and their wife said I'm out of here, man, we're not going to be married. And the guys said and they were sad, but they realized well, I'm free and I can't control that and I'm sad about it, but that is what it is. And so I think we learned to deal with things, suffering. We learned to suffer and believe that we could get to come through the other side and things would be okay. We believed that and it turned out that way. So that was a powerful lesson for us. Now, what's happening today is these young people, they're not as connected person to person now. They may be on the phone with somebody, but they're looking to all this social media stuff that's trying to divide us. Okay, us and them, us and them. It didn't matter what, what it's, race or gender or whatever it is. The social media is trying to divide us and you can bet your bottom dollar that the communists in China and Russia are pouring millions, billions into all of that social media stuff to try to divide this group from that group, men from women, old people from young people, town people from country people, anything that they can do to divide us, whereas what we know is that when you're in a community that cares about you, you're going to be healthier because they're going to say well, I think you should. You can do this, I'm proud of you, you'd be good at this. That's so uplifting to have people that care about you. You know, when I think back about my growing up my friends, a little town. I grew up on a farm in a country, but nine miles away from my high school, Commerce, Georgia my friends' parents we all knew each other. Okay, small school, and when I met their parents in town or at an event, they would treat me like I was somebody and like I was important.
How growing up in a small town helped his confidence as a POW
19:29 – 20:33 Lee Ellis You're for it or you're against it and in my hometown, growing up in the 50s, you know these people, these adults treated me like I was an important, valuable person. That gave me a lot of confidence to deal with everything, to be a fighter pilot and deal with things there and to be a POW and deal with things. But also I had great leaders that were courageous and you know their role model, their mentoring and their example really meant a lot to me. This guy is tougher than me. He'd been through more than me. If he can do it, I'd better try and hang in here. I can do it. But these young people today they're on their phone, they're not connected with somebody who's really a real person, connecting with their heart, and that, psychologically, is undermining. You know the mental illness of teenagers is skyrocketing right now.
Advice for people on how to clear themselves of the trauma they take from others
21:30 – 25:55 Lee Ellis I think you have to realize that pain and shame, doubts and fears are going to take you out of the person God made you to be and you have to figure out a way to get healed and get away from that. And so in the POW camps, that was a day by day effort that really has caused us to be so free and to so healthy that we're out living our peers, even though we were eating pumpkin soup for six months twice a day with weevils right. Yeah, with weevils and bugs floating in it, and you know we had no medical care those years and so all of that because we were getting healthier emotionally, psychologically to believe that we had a good life, that we weren't perfect we, but we're going to be authentic, we are acceptable people and we don't have to pretend you know that's powerful when you're, you know to be. I have a model a secure, insecure, secure on the right picture, a sliding model, secure to insecure. Okay, now, we all slide around on that a little bit, because there's some areas where we're all insecure a little bit. But doubt, fear, pride, shame, anger, bitterness, all those kind of things are going to make you more insecure. Okay, and that's why I encourage leaders speak into your people's lives and let them know you believe in them, you care about them, because that helps them slide over, it helps them believe in themselves, it helps them get healthy. But each individual is going to have to work to get healthier and turn loose of bitterness and anger and shame and guilt, because those are, they're going to make you a prisoner of life. You're going to be in handcuffs and leg irons if you've got those and so, whatever it takes, if it's going to get counseling you know I've been to counseling. You know a fighter pilot would never go to counseling. But in the 1977, 75, 76, 77, somewhere in there, my wife said I don't think we should live out here on this farm. It was my idea, see, I grew up on a farm and I had been farming in the POW camps every day for two months, planning my farming out in Texas. And I pushed back on it and she said, well, could we go to counseling? I said sure, because I'm not threatened. But nobody went to counseling back then, especially a pilot Air Force officer. I was a major then. And she said I said sure. So after two times in two sessions in counseling I said you know what? You're right, we need to move on base. And we did and it was one of the best things I ever did go to counseling and I listen. But that freed us up and our relationship to go on and we've been married almost 49 years now. Our stories the last one in our new book, Captured by Love, Inspiring True Romance stories from Vietnam, POW. So you got to get healthy, and love and caring make you more healthy than anything else. It frees you from the bonds that make you insecure.
Veterans becoming victims in society after they return from war
26:00 – 27:32 Lee Ellis I think when the Vietnam War veterans came home there was so much anti-war stuff going on and people saw that as an emotional thing. We got to let them know those soldiers zero over there killing people. Well, soldiers, that's their job is to defend our country and that means sometimes killing people. But the communists were killing a lot more people than we were. But it just kind of became a thing back then and when our Vietnam veterans came home, for the most part they were spit on. They couldn't wear their uniform in public a lot of places and they were mistreated. They weren't valued and appreciated when they came home and that was really bad and that caused a lot of them to suffer even more from what they had just leaving their buddies behind. So one of the things that we need to do and our country has done really good job lately, I think letting veterans know we appreciate them, we value them. We've got a couple of days in the year now when we celebrate veterans, but everywhere you go, almost people are saying thank you for your service to veterans and that is so important to let them know you appreciate them because they're sacrificing for our country and protecting our freedom. They don't make the decisions. The decisions about what our military does are made in Washington DC. You need to take that up with your congressman.
On Tom Cruise playing him in a movie and ROLE MODELS
27:40 – 30:45 Lee Ellis He's had a good job in playing some of those guys. He's short like me. And you know, he and the Maverick Top Gun. I think that he kind of mellowed there. He was older and had mellowed a lot and that was probably more like me, but I mellowed a lot too. You know, through that I don't know who that would be. I think the most important thing in my life is I've had good role models, and when I had bad role models I was able to learn from them too. I said, hmm, not me, and even the best role models, there's some things about them. In fact, I was at an AFA event and this retired one star general, said well, I kind of have a list of my mentors, of the things that I see in them that I want to do, but also have another column of things I see in them that I don't want to do, and that's exactly what I've always done mentally. I've never written it down, but I kind of mentally do that because nobody's perfect. And so I admire my really good leaders or I admire all leaders, certain things about them, but there's certain things about them I say, hmm, that probably doesn't work. They are doing that because they haven't gotten over that something from their childhood or they are insecure in that area. You know, when you're insecure, you overreact sometimes and that's what it was. They were protecting themselves and doing something they probably shouldn't have been done. So I use all that to coach myself. I think the most important thing is you've got to always be growing. I'll be 80 in 28 days and I am working hard to continue to grow. I want to be a better person and I think you have to remember that, above all everything else in life, love is the only thing. Love is the thing that matters most. Every human being wants to be loved, and love comes in many angles. A good smile makes people feel loved. That's the simplest thing, all the way down to in a marriage, of the intimacy that makes a person feel loved, and so there's many angles in there, but letting somebody know you appreciate them is like a ray of love, and so connecting with people's hearts and ways, by listening to them, encouraging them, believing in them it's just so important to help them be healthy.
Billboard message for everyone to see and read
31:00 Lee Ellis On the way into town, not out of town, but on the way into town. Before you get in, going and make mistakes, so to speak, at the front door and not the back door. We started out talking. You said what are some of the key components of leadership and life and for a leader and I said character first, the mission and people. I think you always have to be on guard about your character, because there's so many temptations and nobody has perfect character and you have to be correcting back on course all the time. And so we have an honor code we developed about seven years ago, with seven articles tell the truth, keep your commitments, those kind of things. But there's seven of them, but they're so important that I would encourage people to go to our website, Leading With Honor, and find the honor code and download it and print it out. It's free, it's one page and it's very graphic, and just look at it and use it to coach yourself to be a person of character.
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Books and People mentioned:
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”- Henry Ford
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