POW frees captives of their fears
Lee Ellis will never forget Nov. 7, 1967. That’s the day when, as a 24-year old U.S. Air Force fighter pilot on a mission over North Vietnam, his plane was shot down.
Nor will he forget the years he spent in captivity as a prisoner of war. Quite the opposite.
Now, more than 40 years later, Ellis talks about his story of survival in POW camps –and the lessons he learned along the way– with audiences nationwide while promoting his new book, “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”
“My plane blew up into three pieces. I knew I had to get out,” he says of the incident that changed his life forever.
“I pulled the handle and out we went. In less than two seconds, everything was done for me. It popped me out of my seat, activated my parachute and I was floating down.”
Ellis landed safely but was immediately captured by the militia. Thus began five and half years as a POW in various camps, including the infamous Hoa Lo Prison –which American POWs called the Hanoi Hilton– where torture and hunger were common. He describes his stay as endless “boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror.”
U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was captured 11 days before Ellis, was in a cell near Ellis’ at the Hanoi Hilton. Both were released the same day, March 14, 1973.
After being freed, Ellis returned to service with the Air Force, eventually retiring as a colonel.
After retirement from the Air Force, Ellis became an executive coach. It was then that he began to realize that the very lessons he had learned as a POW applied to leadership.
“I picked up the principles that helped us through that experience and, in many ways, I show how they’ve helped me in my military career, in my business career and, especially, how they’ve helped my clients.”
One of the things he learned from that experience was setting a goal and then, “day by day, biting off a chunk.”
“I learned so many words of French a day, and then I practiced them, or so many Spanish words or German words, and then I practiced them. I started working on chin-ups and when I started I could only do four. A year and a half later I could do 30.
“I learned the value of doing something and staying with, it little by little,” he adds. “As a leadership coach I’m trying to help executives make behavioral changes so they will see the value of incremental change. If they just keep practicing them, one day they’ll realize they have made significant change over the years and now are a much better leader.”
Ellis also became familiar with what he calls “leaning into the fear of pain.” He learned that when deciding not to collaborate with his captors, knowing the consequence would be torture.
“You have to learn to lean into the pain of your fears and doubts,” he says. “We all have doubts. I consult with leaders all the time, and even the best at the highest level admit that they have insecurities; that there are places where they feel insecure.”
Indeed, Ellis’ own doubts clouded the hero’s welcome he received when he finally came home in 1973.
“I felt like a phony,” he recalls. “Here is a guy who was there two years longer than me. Now, he is a real hero; he’s really done something. And I was there only five-and-a-half years.”
Ellis says that writing “Leading with Honor” was cathartic in terms of helping him process what he had gone through. Ultimately, he says, the book is helping accomplish his new mission of freeing people from being captives of their own fears so they can achieve their objectives.
“Lee has always been a man who has led from the front with the highest degree of integrity,” says Hugh Massie, president and founder of Financial DNA Behavior International, a firm in which Ellis is a strategic partner that focuses on behavioral discovery systems for business. “Lee has very strong character and never wavers from doing the right thing, even if there is a short term cost to him.”