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4 leadership lessons from a POW

I had an incredible opportunity to speak with Lee Ellis, leadership coach and consultant, author of Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, and former Vietnam POW about leadership.

Lee spent five and a half years — 1,955 days — as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. The experiences he shared are unfathomable, but what’s even more interesting is how he takes what he learned from his POW experiences and applies them to leaders and companies today to help them become better.

Here are four insights Lee shared from his time as a POW and the leadership implications from those experiences:

  1. Accountability starts with you

The responsibility for accountability is on the leaders. Leaders want to “beat up” on others to be more accountable but the fact is, if they’re leading as they should then others will be accountable as a result.  If leaders are doing a good job leading then their people will be successful. You can’t lead others until you can effectively lead yourself, and to lead yourself you must hold yourself accountable to your values, choices and subsequent actions.

This means avoiding the easy route. Nothing good is ever the result of easy. In fact, easy never gets you to where or what you want to be. It’s easy to avoid having a difficult conversation with a coworker, but chances are that if you don’t have that conversation, the problem will continue and you’ll find yourself facing the same situation down the road. Avoiding the conversation is easy, but the problem will persist simply because you avoided the difficult route. Do yourself a favor and forget easy. Chances are that if you feel nervous about doing something, you’re on the right path. Doing so takes courage, commitment and character, as these are what Lee believes to enable us to be honorable people and be held accountable.

  1. Take time to clarify

I’ve said before that when it comes to communication you can either over-communicate, or you can under-deliver. Just because you, as a leader, know what needs to happen or what success looks like, doesn’t mean everybody else does.

Take the time to clarify intentions, processes and results and then tie each one back to the organization’s vision and values. People want to know why and how their efforts support (1) each other and (2) the mission. One of the smartest things a leader can do is slow down and communicate exactly what success looks like and why winning matters.

  1. Know what you stand for

The POWs who were tortured the worst kept bouncing back to do the right thing. Lee learned that what he cherished most in life was doing the honorable thing and was willing to sacrifice for it.

Leaders have a huge impact upon others through the choices they make and the actions they take–or don’t take. People see everything leaders do and don’t do. Know what you stand for and what you don’t and there won’t be any ambiguity when it comes to right and wrong. Being courageous isn’t easy, but it’ll certainly get you to where and what you want to be.

  1. Earn your way to have a say

People respect competence. If you’re not competent then it’s difficult to trust you, and without trust, you’re dead in the water. Of course the flip side of competence is character. You may be competent but you also need the character that demonstrates positive intent. You wouldn’t hop in a car with a driver who has a perfect driving record and a death wish. Sure, he or she may be a competent driver but without the positive intent to drive safely, there’s no trust. Demonstrate your worth by being worthy of work. Ask for more work. Take more responsibility. The more you ask, the more you’ll receive.

What’s so amazing, after having spoken with Lee, wasn’t just his POW experience, but how he has converted a negative experience into a positive one for others to learn from and apply for themselves.

There’s always opportunity in chaos. Finding it isn’t easy–nothing good ever comes easily–but it’s there. You just have to search for it.