Is successful leadership caught or taught? It’s a question worth asking if you want to conquer new areas in work and business. Even though I served as a leader and educator for most of my Air Force career and now coach leaders in top organizations around the world, it was as a follower in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp that I really learned about leadership.
Most POWs held in North Vietnam were fighter pilots and aircrew. Like entrepreneurs, we were accustomed to operating independently, using flexibility and problem solving to accomplish our mission. But in the confinement of that crucible experience, we had to adapt our behavior and mindsets to covertly work together and survive as a team. Courageous leadership examples everyday inspired us to resist the enemy and return with honor.
I’m often asked, “What is your most important piece of advice for young leaders?” Actually it’s the same for all generations -- never stop learning and growing in your leadership. It was a priority for me as a young POW right out of college, and I’m still learning every day and encouraging others to do the same. In my upcoming book, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, I share the seven Cs below that we used in the camps, and explain how they apply to us today.
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Developing your leadership core.
We had seasoned, highly-trained leaders in the camps, but no one had ever been a POW. We were all stripped to our core, but the senior leaders bore the brunt of the torture and deprivation. There were three foundational attributes that set them apart and enabled them to suffer and sacrifice while inspiring the rest of us.
Character -- They knew right from wrong, and they embraced the military Code of Conduct for POWs as the standard. Have you clarified what you stand for? What are your non-negotiables?
Courage -- They consistently suffered torture and humiliation to do their duty, live up to the Code, and set the example for the rest of us. Do you cave in to your doubts and fears, or do you lean into them to keep your commitments, make tough decisions, and do what’s right?
Commitment -- They did not waiver. They were beaten down, but they bounced back time and again. They believed in their mission, and they were loyal to our cause. Do you remain faithful to your values, and do you stay the course to achieve your goals?
If you’re growing in these three Cs, you’ll be leading by example -- showing others what an honorable leader looks like. You don’t have to be perfect, but you can be authentically vulnerable and transparent, honestly admitting your mistakes and correcting back to course. This leadership philosophy attracts and inspires followers everywhere -- not just in POW camps.
Building your leadership competence.
By living and leading with honor, you’ll have the credibility to hold others accountable. But courageous accountability follows a proven process. These next four Cs give you the tactical, soft skills that you need to create a culture of success:
Clarify -- Our POW leaders set policy, and we took great risks to communicate it to even the most isolated cells. As an entrepreneurial leader, it’s easy to assume that internal and external customers know and understand your perspective. That’s totally unrealistic. Do you have clarity about mission, vision, values, standards, policies and the specific task expectations? Do you over-communicate them to make sure clarity gets to every level in the organization? Do you include the “why” wherever possible? Millennial leaders especially want to know why.
Connect -- POW leaders showed great respect and concern for others. They made us feel important because we were all suffering as a team to achieve the same goal -- return with honor.
Connect differently with each person. Do you connect with each person based on their unique natural talents and behaviors? Assessment tools such as Leadership Behavior DNA™ help assess the strengths and struggles of your team members.
Connect at a heart level. Do you regularly communicate to individuals that they are important? Do you support and listen to them to send a message that they are valued and respected?
Collaborate -- Even though senior leaders were clearly in charge, they approached issues more as teammates than as bosses whenever possible. Collaboration is crucial in our knowledge age. As the leader, do you listen to others’ ideas, give feedback, coach, train, support, develop, and correct as needed? Millennials especially respond to collaborative leadership.
Closeout -- Get closure with celebration or confrontation -- Most POWs were incarcerated for more than five years, so celebrating our freedom was a landmark experience. But in the midst of our POW experience, we learned that celebrating survival milestones and even minor accomplishments lifted our spirits, brought us together and energized us for the next battle.
Celebrate -- Many leaders don’t like celebrating for fear that performance and production will go down. Done properly, it’s just the opposite. Do you have doubts and fears about celebrating? How could you gain courage and commitment to celebrate more?
Confront -- Even when you’ve done everything right to promote success, sometimes people don’t come through or meet organizational standards and values. Do you courageously confront when appropriate, or do you procrastinate? What would a respectful plan to confront fairly and firmly look like? Carried out, how would it be received by your team?
If you’re concerned about your current leaders as well as next generation leaders, the best thing you can do is to adopt these attributes and then lead with courageous accountability. Growing together is the cheapest and most effective way to improve performance, bottom line results and the culture of your organization. So, honorable leadership is both caught and taught. Choose to engage with honor, and build a culture of courageous accountability.