Veterans day tribute

A Veterans Day Tribute: Natural Behavior in the Crucible of POW Life

Lee Ellis served as an Air Force fighter pilot flying 53 combat missions over North Vietnam. In 1967, he was shot down and held as a POW for more than five years in Hanoi and surrounding camps. Today, he is an award-winning author, leadership coach and speaker on leadership, teambuilding and human performance. Notably, DNA Behavior Founder Hugh Massie identifies Lee Ellis as a crucial mentor in his life. We are honored to have this Veteran’s Day reflection from Colonel Ellis.

As we celebrate Veterans Day 2019, it’s a good time to reflect on the brotherhood shared by those who wear and have worn the uniform of our armed forces. Those who have served have a bond– something that they have in common that draws them together. Quite often that bond is based on suffering and sacrifice. It begins with basic training, because every person who enters the military must endure some sort of a boot-camp experience that levels the playing field and requires participants to work together to succeed.

It’s intended to take you out of your comfort zone and force you to collaborate to succeed. Camaraderie begins early and usually endures. So, whether it’s at the VA, the American Legion, AMVETS, or Disabled American Veterans, they like coming together with their buddies and those who have been there, for instance, struggling to re-integrating into society.

Behavior in the POW Camps

During my time as a Vietnam Prisoner of War, the living situation varied from isolation to cells of four to six people, but eventually we spent almost two years locked up in one large room with 52 strong-willed, competitive aircrew cellmates. There were no inside walls in this cell of roughly 1800 sq. ft.; it was packed with bodies and the only place you might be able to get alone was the two-holer- basically a squat trench over the sewer in a small room at one end. The POW’s slept elbow to elbow on a raised concrete slab. There were some hard times, but it was the perfect laboratory to learn about human behavior.

In this enlarged sardine can, you could not hide nor pretend. Your best and worst behaviors were on display 24/7 day after day, month after month, year after year. Packed together so closely with our struggles so open and obvious, we could see how they were problematic. First, we saw it in others who irritated us.

But over time, in ways that were sometimes subtle and often blatant, we learned of our own blunders and shortcomings. It was there that we came to accept that we were all unique and that we could not change others. In effect, there was a mirror there to show us what we had not seen before. In this behavioral laboratory with the suspension of time in the camps, we were motivated to go to work and so we did.

With little to do, most of us decided it was a good opportunity to grow and develop. We soon organized an educational program with formal academic classes six days a week. It was optional, but most guys engaged in some of the classes. The teamwork in that cell became remarkable. We organized everything, assigned and rotated duties, and most importantly learned the power of respecting and caring for others – even those who irritated us the most. Only twice in those 20 months did someone raise their voice at another, and in both cases, they apologized before bedtime.

All Styles are Leaders

I often share my story and highlight the great leadership and point out how it came from various styles of behavior. There was not just one style that excelled, but what was common were the three characteristics of Character, Courage and Commitment – and the ability to focus on both Mission and People.

From my and Hugh’s combined 45 years of experience in leadership coaching and otherwise working with thousands of leaders, we know this is the secret sauce. No matter your natural talents or personality style, you can be a great leader if you have integrity and learn to adapt your behaviors to accomplish the mission (get results) and take care of the people (build trusting relationships).

This is the great advantage of the military. Both in the training on the fields of friendly strife and in combat, warrior leaders learn that you must walk the tightrope of accomplishing the mission and taking care of the people — some have even adapted the slogan Mission First-People Always. Veterans understand this profound wisdom and stay connected. And on this day, we pause to honor them for their service and offer our heartfelt appreciation.

If you are intrigued by this paradox of leading and managing to maximize both people and mission, please check out Lee Ellis and Hugh Massie’s latest collaboration, the soon- to-be released book, Leadership Behavior DNA: Discovering Natural Talents and Managing Differences. Pre-orders online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other popular retailers. Book-related events and speaking engagements will be announced soon and can be scheduled via contact@freedomstarmedia.com.

Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder and President of Leadership Freedom
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