Book Review: Leading with Honor

Lee Ellis
FreedomStar Media

Leading with Honor, Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, is a unique and outstanding book by former prisoner of war Lee Ellis, an F-4 pilot who spent nearly six years in POW camps in Vietnam. Its stated intent is to pass on “leadership” lessons from the “crucible of captivity.” In truth, it is much more than that: It teaches lessons that are applicable to all of life.

Ellis, who was a 1st Lt at the time, was on his 53rd mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down. He was captured almost immediately and spent the next years of his life fighting to survive and “return with honor.” Ellis relates his experiences in a gripping, realistic way that is engaging without overwhelming the reader with the terror that was the life of daily torture.

In each chapter, Ellis relates a tale of his captivity, astutely draws both leadership and life lessons from it, and then provides relevant “coaching” guidance to aid in the application of the lessons. In a nod to the military culture, the key point of each chapter is highlighted as a “foot stomper” — a term every military trainee knows means to pay special attention (because what you’re about to hear will be on the test…).

Some of the examples of the applied lessons are specific to the business community, as in examples of Ellis’ consulting with Fortune 500 companies. All of them, however, are applicable to life.

For example, in the first section on “Know Yourself,” Ellis highlights the need for a life purpose that goes beyond oneself:

It’s fine to set your sights on any number of worthwhile goals…But all of these achievements will be hollow if they don’t align with an overall purpose that holds up under life-and-death scrutiny.

Ellis distills this in the coaching section as

1. Consider your purpose…What on earth were you created to do?

Ellis recognizes the innate need to understand your higher purpose — something the US Army is even now trying to assist in its Soldiers as it fights the tragedy of suicide.

There are two significant highlights of the book. The first is Ellis’ articulation of courage — a definition that only the credibility of a POW can bring:

My own working definition of courage is that it’s doing what is right or called for in the situation, even when it does not feel safe or natural. If your commitment (will) is strong enough, I believe you can muster the courage to make honorable choices in the face of virtually any challenge. The strength of your will is connected to your commitment to live from your deepest desires. Leading with honor is difficult; it can only be achieved when tied to such a commitment.

The second is Ellis’ excellent explanation of his “Continuous Development Model,” which he applies to the iterative improvement process of the USAF Thunderbirds.

Lee Ellis is also a man of faith, and he writes that faith was integral to the lives of the captives:

We had faith in each other, in our leaders, in our country, in our families, and especially in God. The old saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes” was certainly true in the POW camps…I knew God loved me unconditionally, and that He had a plan for my life…I could recall many of my favorite scripture verses. Romans 8:28–“In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” — and other passages, like Psalms 1, 23, and 100 gave me an inner strength and a sense of peace that kept me going.

Those are just a few examples of the wisdom conveyed in Leading with Honor. Written in a style that is conducive to individual chapter study and practical application, it is an easy read and well worth the time of even busy pilots. It is at once a moving memoir from captivity in Vietnam, a primer on leadership, and a reference on life.

Leading with Honor is highly Recommended.

This book is available from Amazon.

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