Courageous leadership inspires former POW to overcome fear, lead others

Overcoming fear is a major hurdle for many people in the workplace.

“It’s one of the biggest derailers of leadership and performance of all kinds in the workplace and in our lives,” said Lee Ellis, former Air Force colonel and leadership expert.

Ellis spoke to Federal News Radio coordinating producer Lauren Larson about his own experience encountering and overcoming fear as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.

“I thought I was pretty tough,” he said. “I had flown 53 combat missions over enemy territory of the highest order, and I didn’t have a lot of fear there. But facing a communist interrogator, face-to-face, when you have no power, no control, and they have control over your life and your food and your shelter and all that sort of stuff, that took a different kind of courage than I really ever had to use before.” Ellis said he did all right, but didn’t do as well as he wanted to at times. He was able to draw strength and inspiration from his immediate leader, Capt. Ken Fisher, he said.

“He was mentally tougher than I was,” Ellis said. “He’d been a wrestler and he was six years older and I think that made a little difference. I just learned from him. I watched him and I kept pushing myself. I finally developed this philosophy that I teach now which is ‘Lean into the pain of your fear to do what you know is right.’ To me, that helps me understand what I need to do.”

Following the war, Ellis served in various leadership roles in the Air Force, with his final two jobs running leadership schools focusing on officer development. Now, he serves as a leadership consultant and has had his own company for the last 15 years.

“I do a lot of leadership assessment also, so understanding human nature, understanding leadership and leadership principles,” he said. “I do executive team building, executive coaching, leadership workshops and then also motivational speaking.”

While Ellis was a POW, he saw many examples of courageous leadership. His senior ranking officers were Col. Robbie Risner, Cmdr. James Stockdale and Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton. Future Arizona senator and presidential candidate John McCain was also at the Hanoi Hilton with Ellis.

“The leaders went through first and most often, the torture,” Ellis said. “Some of these guys, most of them came in the military right after World War II or right as World War II was ending, so they were kind of the old generation. But they were in their early 40s, very young by my standards today. But they were very experienced and they were well schooled in leadership and very courageous and that made all the difference in the world, because they created a climate or a culture there of leading with honor, as I call it, and set a standard that our goal was to return with honor.”

With that as an inspiration, Ellis wrote the book “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”

Ellis also recently returned to Vietnam to visit the prison camp, which left him with a lot of mixed emotions.

“That was a heavy, oppressive experience in every way you can imagine,” he said. “Being back in that place. … It was just oppressive to encounter the old prison but also the communist lies. I think the worst thing about it was just realizing how communism is built on lies and when I see that trend coming, not necessarily the trend of communism, but the trend of ideologies and parties being built on lies, it really upsets me. I came home with new commitment to the truth and trying to show people why every time a lie is told, some of our freedom is taken away.”


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