Leon F. Ellis, president of Leadership Freedom, LLC, was a prisoner of war during his Air Force service in North Vietnam after his plane was shot down near the Gulf of Tonkin. In this excerpt from his keynote address, Ellis shares the skills and values he learned in service and during his time at the “Hanoi Hilton,” and how those experiences still inform his business strategies today.
I’m honored and humbled to be speaking to a group of flag officers and generals. For all of you, I’ve felt your love, and that’s powerful. It encourages me, inspires me and gives me the energy to be here to speak with you tonight.
I’m going to focus on the great leadership that we had in the Hanoi Hilton and in the other camps in North Vietnam. Leadership always makes the difference. You know that, but I don’t want you to forget it when you get out on those boards.
Know yourself. That’s chapter one in the book. You’ve got to believe in yourself. Now, I know you do, but there’ll be times when you have doubts. You have to know, Who am I uniquely? What am I bringing to this board?
Don’t just be a director— be the director of the company you want to be with, that you’re passionate about, that you can engage with and not be burned out on, that fits your personality, your situation, your purpose. It ought to fulfill your purpose in life. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to bring the rewards you really want. Help them build a culture of honesty, fidelity and authenticity.
Trust yourself and your instincts. When my instinct [raises] a question mark, I need to stop and check it out because there’s probably something really going on there.
The teamwork to help [fellow POWs] bounce back was crucial. Someday when you’re on that board, they’re going to look to you in crisis because you know how to do that. We stayed united through communications. They tried to isolate us from the other POWs, and we would take incredible risks to keep our communications open. I didn’t get caught, so I was never tortured for it, but a lot of guys were. The message must get out, and we were willing to take great risks to do that.
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Now, to do all that, you have to confront your doubts and fears. As a leadership coach, the one thing that I find that CEOs and C-level people, all the way down to frontline supervisors—what gets them in the most trouble are their doubts and fears. As a board member, you have to be able to help your teammates process their doubts and fears.
Likewise, you will have to confront your own doubts and fears. Doubts and fears are good. They’re designed into us—they help us stay out of trouble. But sometimes we need to confront them and lean into the pain. Our leaders in Vietnam did it consistently. Their example taught me to lean into the pain and to do what was right. If you know it’s the right thing to do, you do it, no matter how painful it is. That’s courage.