Dr. Relly Nadler: Today we are very honored to have Lee Ellis. He is going to talk about Engaging and Leading with Honor, a new book that he has. He is the founder and president of Leadership Freedom, LLC, and Freedom Star Media. He is an award-winning author, a leadership consultant, and expert presenter in the areas of leadership, team building, and human performance.
His past clients have been Fortune 500 senior executives and C level leaders in telecommunications, healthcare, military, and other business sectors. He has appeared on CNN, CBS This Morning, CSpan, ABC World News, Fox News Channel, plus hundreds of engagements in various industries.
On his website Lee has What is the Mission of Leading with Honor? It gives a little bit of background. The goal isn’t perfect leadership, but it’s agreeing that we all want to authentically lead with honor. We help others grow in character, courage, and commitment. We will talk about those three and learn new skills based on the natural behavior that will help them develop next generation in areas of responsibility, accountability, and resilience.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I was very honored to meet Lee through his book. The way I was introduced to that book, which is called Leading with Honor, was as a speaker to the United States Global Strike Command which is our preeminent Airforce facility where we house our B2 bomb squads and air fleet. I was the guest of 4-Star General Robin Rand. I was a speaker at the Elite Senior Warriors Conference. The book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, was a gift. It was a gift to thank me for speaking to these warriors and it was one of the best gifts I have ever received.
I tore through that book and I keep it on my bed stand at my home. I have to tell you it’s an amazing read for anyone who is just trying to get through a day-to-day crisis. A day-to-day challenge. It has everything to do with life and how we choose to live it from a man, Lee himself, who lived one of, I believe anyone’s worst nightmares.
Lee’s book has received multiple awards since it’s release, including the winner of the 2012 International Book Awards in both the business and management categories. It is a selected reading on the US Airforce Chief of Staff reading list, obviously, it’s obviously an important book.
He has several new books out on the same theme, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, and I’m sure he is working on new books as we speak.
Lee Ellis was a POW at the Hanoi Hilton, the famous internment camp for prisoners in Vietnam. He tells heart-wrenching stories of courage and valor that he and his team of other military professionals underwent not months, not a year, but many, many years of internment. Many years of devastating turmoil and abuse. How a human being withstands that kind of tragedy and learns resilience and comes out fighting, and comes out a solid human being, a citizen of the world, is what this book is about.
It teaches everyone small tricks to cope and be your best. I can’t say more about Lee Ellis except to say that thank you for your service, sir, and I love you as a warrior and I am so grateful that you and your wife Mary, your four children, and your six grandchildren are able to celebrate the holidays with you and look forward to many, many, years of your friendship in my future, and I know our audience is just going to love you. Welcome to the show.
Lee Ellis: Thank you, Cathy, and hi Relly. So good to be with you all. I know something about your credentials and I’m very honored to be on with you because you have real expertise that I really admire. So, thank you for inviting me in today.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Thanks, Lee, we appreciate that. I want to talk about a little bit aside from your experience, your honors; you have a BA in history, and MS in Counseling and Human Development, and you are a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and Air War College.
One of the questions that we like to start off with Lee, is who has influenced you most as a leader in your life?
Lee Ellis: You know I thought about that a lot. There were several and it’s too hard for me to pick one because I have been learning from leaders all along the way. I’ve always been an observer of people and, so I try to say what is it about this person that makes them stand out and how could I modify that or adapt it into my world so that it would fit with me.
But, I would have to say, probably one of my POW leaders, Captain Ken Fisher. He’s about six years older than I am and he was my senior ranking officer. For three years we lived together eyeball-to-eyeball, so to speak, 24 hours a day, for three years, except for when we were being tortured or taking out of the room for some bad purpose, we were together.
When you live with someone that much, and you see them that much, you see all the good, all the bad, all the ugly, but what I saw in him in the most difficult circumstances was a person of great character, of great courage and great commitment. A person of wisdom, of good judgment, a person that was emotionally even balanced. A person who was not, sure he has a lot of confidence and a strong ego, but he also had humility. When you are around somebody who is very confident and capable but also has humility, it’s so attractive. I learned so much from him and I wanted to be like him in many ways. I was younger, I had a lot of confidence, you might say kind of an ego being a young fighter pilot; I learned from him about being more dedicated and just pure toughness of staying in the fight until you win the battle.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You know Lee when you talk about this experience, and just to make sure our audience is framing this correctly. I just want to remind them that you are an Air Force fighter pilot. You flew 53 combat missions over North Vietnam and you were shot down in 1967 and held as a POW for more than 5 years.
The number of people that came through your cell, for lack of a better word to describe it, all of these men had and practiced valor. I mean there is no doubt about it. I am not sure if people are Googling you as we are talking here, but we are talking about two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star of Valor. The Purple Heart, the POW medal. Everybody you are going to talk about I know you are going to be the best person in the world and make them a hero, and that’s wonderful of you. I really want people to get a sense of who you are while we are on this program together and I know you are going to deflect, and deflect, and I’m going to keep trying to get you to recognize that we are interested in you and I’m sure you have a lot of great teammates that they can read about in the book.
I am going to be selfish here for the purposes of learning about how you learned what you know about struggle. When you think about self-awareness and development, what was it that was a defining moment in your experience, that you write about in the book? What was the defining moment where you said, this is it. I’m either going to get it together here with the men that I know, and love and we are going to get through this, or we are not. What is that defining moment for you, not anybody else?
Lee Ellis: Well, you know, I think for me it was being alone. I was alone for two weeks, and I’m a team player. I’m an extrovert. Extroverts don’t do their best, usually, alone. They do their best with a team. Those two weeks I was alone, and I realized how weak I was when I was alone. So that was one thing. I knew that I had some growing to do because I felt fear, I felt alone, and I just didn’t really know how I was going to come through in that situation. That was a defining moment; that realization that this was not flying an airplane, which I was good at, this was not driving a car or riding a bike, this was something that was terrifying, facing an enemy that was threatening us, that we might not ever go home, threatening us with torture, and then it did become torture.
In that first few days, I was bombed by American air pilots three times and the local populous came after me as a bad guy. So the local populous found out I was in the village and came after me three times to try to cut my head off or beat me up, and fortunately, the militia guy in charge of taking me North took care of me. But, those times I felt so vulnerable and so alone and yet I just had to moment by moment and then hour by hour, and then day by day, just say, do your duty. Do your best to do your duty to do what you know you are supposed to do and that’s being a good soldier or good warrior. I just kind of coached myself in the moment to do the best I could.
Unfortunately, when I was tortured, I didn’t do as well as I thought I should have because I wasn’t strong enough to beat them. I didn’t know that that was normal. They could make you do something and they wouldn’t let you die. I was in leg irons and handcuffs laying on a filthy torture room floor after I got to Hanoi, and feeling like I was the worst soldier that had ever worn the uniform, that I didn’t deserve to wear the uniform because I wasn’t strong enough to beat them.
Well, you know, eventually, as I said, I gave in and I gave them something, but I didn’t give them anything. I didn’t tell them anything other than name, rank, service number, date of birth, and everything else except my father’s first and last name was a lie. They didn’t get anything out of me but just the fact that I had to give in and say okay, I’ll answer your questions, I felt so weak.
That was a frightening thing. The good thing about Captain Fisher was later when I got back to the cell and he said, look, man, you did your best. We all end up in the same place, the same thing happened to us and we are proud of you. That kind of leadership that really affirmed me at a very difficult time, that meant a lot to me. That I was okay. I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was, but I was okay.
Listen to the entire, fascinating interview, above.