Straight Talk Radio

Former POW Lee Ellis shares insights – Leading with Honor

By March 23, 2015 No Comments

Former POW, Lee Ellis has gone from some horrid, incredible situations into today becoming a prolific writer, speaker, blogger. He is the author of the award-winning book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.  With media appearances and interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, Fox News Channel and had literally

Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis

hundreds of speaking engagements around the country, Lee shares with his audience the lessons learned as a POW in the Vietnam war.  It’s my honor to have Lee as a guest on STRAIGHT TALK RADIO.

To hear Lee’s interview click here:  Lee Ellis featured on STRAIGHT TALK RADIO

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Now, here’s your host, Chuck Gallagher.

CHUCK: Hi, this is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio and it is such a delight to have you join us here today. It’s always a fascinating journey when we visit with some of the guests that we’ve had literally from all over the country, but I have to say starting off today, I don’t know that I’ve had a more fascinating guest than the person you’re going to talk to. I was really honored and privileged to be at the University of North Georgia not long ago. The BB&T Center for Business Ethics Leadership conducted a conference and I happened to be one of the guest speakers there to talk about ethics and ethical behavior and I had the privilege of meeting a gentleman who I have heard about, but hadn’t had the honor to meet. His name is Lee Ellis and Lee has, well, I guess the best way to put it is, really an incredible story, but a story that has, I guess, taken Lee from some horrid, incredible situations into today becoming a prolific writer, speaker, blogger. He is the author of the award-winning book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Now, as a 57-year old baby boomer I’m old enough to remember the Hanoi Hilton and to connect some of those names and titles and so forth, with a portion of our past. Without spending a whole lot of time gibbering, I want to really spend time, Lee, with you talking about you, your education, the book you’ve written and more important, the lessons that have come from that. So let me give you a warm welcome, Lee Ellis, to Straight Talk Radio.

LEE: Thank you, Chuck. It’s good to see you again. You know, that was a powerful presentation you gave down here in the Atlanta suburbs a few months ago. I really enjoyed it, will never forget it. I think of it often. In fact, I’ve ran across a note today I’d scribbled down about choices having consequences and I plan to integrate that into some of the writing that I’m going to be doing here in the next few months, but very good to see you again and thanks for the great job you did that day.

CHUCK: Well, thank you. It was an honor to be there and an honor to be included. But, Lee, I guess I need to start off with you saying, first, thank you for your service. You obviously had a great deal of patriotic duty, you graduated from the University of North Georgia and I have to tell you, it’s kind of a funny side note. When I was first invited to your old Alma Mater, I remember going there and they put me up in I think it was called The Smith House, lovely place, and you know, I’m just right in the middle of getting a good dream on and all of a sudden at, like, five in the morning or some obscure time, it’s “paparara pa paparara” and everybody is up and out and it was like, “Well, that was not what I expected,” but I guess I should have prepared for that at a military college.

LEE: Yeah. Actually, Chuck, I was at the University of Georgia in North Georgia but I–

CHUCK: I’m sorry. That’s right. Okay.

LEE: But I grew up very near Dahlonega, so I had many friends there and I can remember going there for regional one-act plays and sports activities, so I’ve kind of been around. I had cousins there. So I’ve been around the University of North Georgia off and on all my life so I know it very well, and yes, it has a military flavor big time.

CHUCK: Now, Lee, take us back if you will. I know that you were in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, so tell us a little bit about your military service and kind of what the environment was like back in the sixties, going into the early seventies and give us a little flavor.

LEE: Yes. Well, the early sixties were, I could see some transitions coming, but the early sixties were much more like the fifties and the forties, and by 1967 one night, deployed to go overseas to go to the war, I could see changes starting to come, as far as the culture. But the country itself was generally very much behind the Vietnam War at that point.

There were some people that didn’t think it was a good idea, but generally the country was behind it. We did have the draft back then, so everybody was getting a chance to go in or going to guard or the reserve to avoid going in or get married to avoid going in. So there were some options there and I didn’t hold it against anyone. I found some of my family members didn’t go in, but for me, I had always this kind of worry or ethos then. I felt like that that was a place I should be. I always wanted to be a pilot and a fighter pilot was really the kind of pilot I wanted to be so I was really in the right spot for who I am. It wasn’t the right spot for everybody, but it was for me. That was kind of what was happening at that point.

Of course when I got to the war– In war times there’s always frustrations for the soldiers. You never seem to get all the materials you want. We felt like at times we didn’t have enough bombs, or that our mission was limiting us from bombing the proper targets. They were being controlled from the White House literally sometimes. So there were frustrations, but that’s always true in the military. You’re a long way from Washington, D.C. out to the front lines and the world going up and down sometimes takes a lot of to get transpired or transverse, transported I guess you might say, but that was kind of the situation.

I went over a 24-year old kid, in fact, I was 23 went I went over, and turned 24. By the time I turned 24, I had more that 50 combat missions total, not 50 over the north, but more than 50 total. I was a season veteran, at least I thought I was by that time.

CHUCK: Now, I have to ask this question and sometimes in our conversations on this radio show, you know, some of us just for my enjoyment, but tell me what kind of plane you flew, because the reason I ask the question is I’m a pilot as well, although it was not military training. So I’ve always been fascinated by folks that have had the opportunity to go in the military and fly some of those cool planes.

LEE: Yeah, it was a cool plane. I flew the F-4 Phantom and those things and that was quite a deal. I graduated from pilot training. I actually got my pilot’s license in college, paid for by the Air Force ROTC. It was kind of a screening program and we did have two or three guys that dropped out of that program. Then we went to flight school where some more pretty high [8:16] washed out right there. By the time we graduated in August 1966, the war was building up and over half of my class got assignments, combat training either F-4 or 105, but mostly to Vietnam as quickly as we could get combat training. I went to California and got my combat training there and then headed the summer of 1967 over to Vietnam and I went to Da Nang which, with the army guys that’s called I Corps, the Marines know it as I Corps, but we were at Da Nang about 70 or 80 miles of what was in the demilitarized zone.

CHUCK: Right. Now, you said, and I think it’s important just to put things into some historical perspective, I was born in ‘57 so I was a bit younger at the time than you during those years, but certainly it was true. Fundamentally, the attitude was support of the war, support of the government. I guess there was a bit of a counter culture, certainly heard it in some of the music, but more of that seemed to come into play, I would say, in the late sixties, kind of moving in towards 1970. In the early sixties there didn’t seem to be quite that resistance. Was that fairly true?

LEE: Yeah, that’s really true. The anti-war movement really started in, maybe started to build up in ’68. It really got going in ’69, ’70, ’71, that’s when it really moved on. Interestingly enough it was not until 1969 that The National League of POW/MIA families get organized and in support of the POWs and MIAs, because the government had told the families to keep quiet. They felt like their interests would be best served by not making a ruckus about our situation. But after about three or four years some of the POWs, one went down in ’64 at [10:24] Lieutenant Commander and then more in ’65, but the good many in ’65. So by ’69 we’d had a number of POWs, a large number, maybe more than a hundred that had been there for four years already in 1969 and their wives and families got tired of waiting and they got organized. That’s another story, but it’s a powerful story that we may want to come back to later.

CHUCK: Well, and I think, Lee, that for purposes of what we’re doing today here on Straight Talk Radio, one of the things we want to do is we want to bring some fascinating and interesting stories to life and you certainly do that.

Lee Ellis is my guest. He is an outstanding author and speaker. He has an award-winning book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. You can find it on Amazon. He would be delighted for you to receive a copy, but I think one of the things that is so powerful and that as we come back from our break we’ll spend time talking about is your prisoner of war experience.

You know, I have to be honest, Lee, I don’t know people who were imprisoned and caught up in circumstances in a war environment like you were. I think it’s incredible to be able to explore that and the lessons that you learned from it, because I’m a firm believer, you heard that at the University of North Georgia, I’m a firm believer that if every choice has a consequence, even if we make, and I certainly made poor choices, you didn’t, you just happened to be caught up as a prisoner of war and we need to go into that story, but regardless of what takes place, there are opportunities for us to learn experiences from those things that are less than pleasant. I look at my experience and think, nothing compared to yours.

So what we’re going to is we’re going to take a quick break. My guest is Lee Ellis. You’ll want to stick with us. Lee is a leadership consultant, author, speaker and retired colonel from the United States Air Force. We’re going to talk with Lee about his experience as he wrote the book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Stick with us. We’ll be right back.

[Commercial break]

CHUCK: This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio and this is such a fun experience for me, especially this particular interview. My guest is Lee Ellis. Lee is a prolific speaker, had media appearances and interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, Fox News Channel and had literally hundreds of speaking engagements around the country. I’m so honored, Lee, that you have taken the time to join me. Lee wrote an award-winning book called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, and I know some folks who are going to be listening today would be like, “What’s the Hanoi Hilton and what does that really mean?” but for those of us that have been around block a bit, we kind of have an idea of what that means. So, Lee, I know that you were talking about being a pilot with the Air Force in the early stages of the Vietnam War. Tell us what happened and how you ended up as a prisoner of war.

LEE: Well, I was on my 53rd combat mission over North Vietnam. I had another 25 or so over South Vietnam in Laos doing work on the roads and bridges over there, taking those out and stopping the [14:05] trail, and then in South Vietnam in close air support with their army and the Marine Corps. But these over North Vietnam, North Vietnam at that time was the most heavily defended area in the world, with anti-aircraft artillery, surface air missiles and fighter jets protecting them. The whole country, their whole countryside was pretty much mobilized for warfare so it was a very high threat area and we lost a good many airplanes over the years, from 1965 and ‘66.

By 1967, that was the peak year of our losses, so it was the fall of 1967. My airplane was hit and blew up into several pieces. There were two of us in the airplane. We both did the Nylon letdown and fortunately when I pulled the handle to eject, everything worked perfectly as it did with my partner and both of us were propelled out of the airplane. Now we’re in a parachute coming down over enemy territory, right into the arms literally of the people that had been shooting us which was kind of your worst professional and personal nightmare to be captured right by the people you’ve been bombing and so on. I was very calm and followed my training until I was completely captured. Until then I was trying to evade. We’re talking about two or three minutes, you know.

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: And then surrounded and captured. I was really in control until then and then I was totally out of control. I had no fear before then. I was so focused on doing my training and doing whatever I could to evade, but once I was captured obviously the shock hit and the fear set in and then I knew I had to kind of stabilize myself and get ready for a new battle and experience something I’d never experienced before.

CHUCK: Lee, ah, wow. There’s so many questions that jump up at me. I have to ask a few. The first question becomes here you are, a well trained and seasoned pilot, flying over North Vietnam and something hits your plane and it explodes around you. I don’t know, what’s the experience? What is the feeling? Or do you just go into autopilot training–

LEE: Yep.

CHUCK: To eject, and you don’t sense the danger that just happened?

LEE: Yeah. I think that’s what happened. We were so well trained. It’s amazing. The training the military gives is wonderful and we were well prepared for that. We were getting into combat so we started reviewing and rehearsing our ejection procedures, our tree-lowering device, our parachute planning and activities, all of that. We rehearsed that quite often so it really did go to autopilot and I was busy because I was so focused on executing—Well, first of all, you have to make a decision. So as a pilot you’re trained to, in an emergency, to analyze the situation and take the proper action. Land as soon as conditions permit. Well, I analyzed the situation and I did take the proper action. The airplane was not flying. It was about to go and hit the ground in probably less than five or six seconds, so I had to get out. And then it was just, speaking of choices, that choice was a matter of life and death. If I stay with the airplane, I was going to die. That was an easy choice. Jump out.

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: And I get in and I choose to follow my training, I tried to pull, steer my parachute–

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: Away from the enemy. That didn’t work very well because the parachutes in those days were not that steerable and I wasn’t very high. One after the other, I had to make a lot of choices there and that day and the next few days ahead. I think when you’re so out of control, one of the things you have to decide is, “Okay, what is it that I can control?” In that situation I could control my attitude and try to control my decisions to believe that someday this would pass and that I would go home. And so then my job was to do everything I could to, one, survive, and two, return with honor. At times they kind of worked against each other because to return with honor I had to take some risks and sometimes take torture and that sort of thing, but I still believed that I would survive that, because I knew that other people had gone before me, had been tortured and had survived and I felt like I could, too.

CHUCK: Lee, when you ejected and you’re parachuting over enemy territory–

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: And following your training, and of course, it would make perfect sense, of course I want to evade the enemy. Did the enemy want to kill you at that point or were you of greater value as a prisoner of war?

LEE: Both. The military had been given orders to bring prisoners in alive, especially over at North Vietnam where the communists had strong control. They wanted pilots especially, I think, for bargaining purposes.

CHUCK: Okay.

LEE: Then I had a little more value than a private. You know, we were captains, lieutenants, I was the first lieutenant, and the captains and majors and pilots which had a little bit more drama around them, I guess.

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: Certainly, we had a lot more money invested. You know, they probably invested $500,000 in training me to be a pilot, maybe more in 1965, ‘66 money. So there was a big investment and we only trained so many a year. They did see us as valuable and the communist party had put out the word to bring us in alive. So the troops that caught me, they followed their orders and in particular the guy who was assigned, he was probably a staff sergeant, was assigned to, with a squad of soldiers, to take me north to hand me over at a half way camp in route to Hanoi. He really was a very dedicated soldier and he and his troops actually took some blows that were intended for me in order to protect me, keep me safe and keep me moving towards the target where they were taking me. The local populous, though, rioted a couple of times and tried to kill me. In fact, three times they tried to get to me and kill me. And I think they probably would have beat me up, possibly to death, you know, because they had sticks and knives and all sorts of stuff.

CHUCK: Lee, when you’re sitting here in 2014–

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: And even if you go from, we’ll call it the late 80s into the 90s into early 2000, and you see the movies that have been made about the Vietnam War, there’s a part of it that seems like that it wasn’t really that organized and that enforced. In other words, you don’t see that North Vietnam is being a military that’s going to obey orders and have a central command and things of that nature. You see it more as “Guerilla warfare”, but yet what I’m hearing from you is they had a clear mission and they followed the mission even though maybe we don’t get quite that same portrayal here.

LEE: Yeah, they were always quite organized, even as guerilla warfare down south where you had two forces fighting in the south. You had the enemies communist guerillas that were being fed and supplied and given direction to, most of the time, by the North Vietnamese central Committee of the Communist Party.

Then you had the North Vietnamese regulars who were in Laos, in Cambodia, in North Vietnam in limited numbers in the western mountainous portion of the Laotian-Cambodian border and right up near the north-west corner of South Vietnam right near the demilitarized zone in the mountains there.

As the war moved in 1968, the North Vietnamese regulars came in more and more, but they were a very organized and disciplined group. You know, they had fought the French and kicked them out of Indo-China in 1954 I believe it was, and they fought a long war there. So they had many years of experience fighting in their home country and this was a noted thing. They could arouse patriotism in a way, even though they were communists, they could arouse patriotism, because they could say, “See, there is a foreign aggressor. We’re taking care of you. We’re the good guys.” I think that contributed to that, although they used vicious methods, you know. They would come in and slaughter families and slaughter the village chief in order to make the point; you better cooperate with us, give us food, do what we tell you or this can happen to you. So, they were terrorists in every regard even back then.

CHUCK: So, my guest is Lee Ellis and this is, wow, what a historical perspective from someone who as an Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, was captured as a prisoner of war and has since come back to the United States as an author, as a speaker and the writer of Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Lee, we’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the experience of being a POW and some of those lessons that you learned. I know that it wasn’t fun, I get that, but perhaps you can share with us the challenges and the lessons so that we can look at it today and apply it in a practical way. This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio. We’ll be back in just a moment.

[Commercial break]

CHUCK: This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio and I love doing these shows, but this one is particularly meaningful. My guest is Lee Ellis. And when I say it’s particularly meaningful, I’m talking with someone who is literally a hero of the United States of America. Lee is an Air Force pilot who during the Vietnam War was shot down over enemy territory and was held as a prisoner of war in various prisons in the Hanoi area for five years.

Lee, I literally cannot imagine what that experience was like and yet you’ve been able to take the experience and instead of it completely jading you, you’ve been able to write an amazing book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. So talk to us a little bit about once you were captured and you became a prisoner of war, to the extent it’s comfortable for you, what was that experience like?

LEE: Well, it took me two weeks to get to Hanoi and I did encounter my first interrogator at that half way house I mentioned a little bit ago. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but enough to get my attention and then we got to Hanoi. We were locked up in the Hanoi Hilton and it turned out that the inn was full, so to speak, and they didn’t have a lot of room, so they had to put me in a room with some other guys. There were three other guys on the truck. We rode in the back of this truck tied up and feet and legs tied up for the most part, and bounced along, and when we got to Hanoi, in the Hanoi Hilton, we were put in a cell. It was 6.5x7ft, so there’s four of us in there, about the size of a small, small bathroom at a gas station in 1955, you know? But it was our bathroom. We had a three gallon bucket and, thank goodness, it had a lid. We emptied that every morning when the guards first came in. But it was our living room, our dining room, our bedroom and everything. We had wooden boards fastened like bunks on the right side and the left side, so it was low right, low left and low and high bunk beds, so one above the other, with a space about 16in between where we could walk back and forth. It was very crowded, cold in the winter, hot in the summertime. We got there right before Christmas and right now we were right before Christmas and the interrogator would come by and open the little porthole in the door and they opened [26:35] and he opened a little can and he said, “Are you preparing for Christmas?”

CHUCK: Oh, no.

LEE: And I thought, “Oh my Gosh,” you know, I knew communists hated Christians so I thought, “O-oh, what’s this about?”

CHUCK: Um-hm.

LEE: Then a few days later he came back and he opened it up again and he said, “Oh, you’re getting ready for Christmas.” I didn’t know what that was about. So, anyway, finally he came by one day and I said, “What do you mean ‘preparing for Christmas’, what’s going to happen?” He said, “Oh, we sing some Christmas songs, we play some Christmas songs for you. Five hundred miles,” and some other songs. You remember the song “Five hundred miles”?

CHUCK: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely.

LEE: So, anyway, we didn’t know what to expect, but they did give us a special meal and we got a special sermon from a local communist [27:30] right there who took his little hamaliel and addressed it out to tell us we should repent and cooperate with the communists, and he was one of those who’d been kind of bought into, or coerced into the communist lines so he gave us the word there.

But, you know, as I said, it was cold that winter, that first winter, scared. We had a speaker in every cell, in North Vietnam had a speaker and they would play for us propaganda three times a day – morning, noon and night. Some of that propaganda was from American sources, antiwar sources. Some of it was from local and within the communist sources, some of it was [28:15], but the one common thing for the internal message that we used to get after lunch every day was that we should repent and collaborate, but we had a choice to make. It’s going back to your theme of making choices, we had a choice to make. We could make a choice to be a good criminal and kind of basically go along with them, and life would be okay, and someday we’d go home, and if we didn’t, life was going to be very difficult and we might not go home. So that was kind of the axe that’s hanging over our head and being pushed at us and you’re sitting there scared and you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s happening exactly in the war. So, that was hard. A lot of worrying with that. Will we go home? Will we be left behind? What will happen with us? It was really a lot of unknowns.

There comes a point, I think, when you just had to believe. You had to believe that they won’t leave us here, our families will be okay, that I’ll be able to handle it and I’ll live through it and someday I’ll go home. That belief I had and it got stronger, I think, every day, and maybe some days it slid back a little bit, but it generally got stronger every day because I said, “Well, I’ve been here and they haven’t killed me and therefore that means, that much more, I’ll probably go home.”

And of course after we’d been there a couple of months they came in and wanted us to do things that we didn’t want to do and that brought torture. Some 95% of the people in camps were tortured one time or another. The senior leaders were tortured because of their leadership, because they were exerting leadership, forming a military team and resisting the enemy.

There were some tough days and we had [29:55] good communication even though it was all covert, we still had some pretty good communication. At least after the first six months.

CHUCK: Lee, when you’re in a situation like that, I guess I have two questions and neither one of them may make a whole lot of sense, but the first one that comes to mind is, so here you are and you know they want something from you and I guess the question is what did they expect to receive? What were they looking for from you when they said, “Be a good communist. Join us. Life will be easy for you,” but what did they think you were going to be able to give them that would make a difference?

LEE: Well, there’s several levels here. At one level they would like to have had military information. Really we had none and I think probably their senior leaders realized that we’d been there for a while and 99% of us had nothing that they didn’t already know, because we didn’t know what the targets were going to be until we took off, but that would be helpful.

Secondly, what they really wanted, though, was they wanted our willful cooperation to make anti war statements, because they wanted to be able to blast them out. They wanted to be able to take them back to their cohorts in the United States with the college campuses in Washington, D.C. and say, “Even the pilots see, even the pilots who flew there, they now see it was wrong. You need to stop the war. We’ve got to stop the bombing.” That’s what they really wanted because it was a propaganda war, much like they are often today. So they wanted that. They wanted us to willfully do that, and when they couldn’t get either one of those, and they were torturing people to write statements, even to make video statements, anti-war video statements which we were able generally to, because their knowledge of English was not very deep, we could use subtlety to mislead them and of course a couple of times they found out. One guy was tortured and he admitted that he was, that two guys rebelled at his squad and they went in anti-war. That’s what they wanted to hear, “Who’s turning against the war and not flying?” Well, nobody. When finally these guys were tortured and they admitted that, “Yes, Clark Kent and Ben Casey.”

[Chuck laughs]

LEE: They hate to fly in their duties while everybody in America [32:14], but the problem was that after a few months, a peace delegation came over and told them that, I guess they thought it would tell, they would quit torturing people, maybe, but I don’t know, but they spilled the beans and told the communists that these guys tricked you and of course these guys went through hell for several years for that.

CHUCK: Oh, wow.

LEE: Yep.

CHUCK: So, I have another question. You said they would play to you, you know, propaganda three times a day.

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: And the things that I heard you say was you would hear, I guess, anti-war cinema taking place from the US coming to you.

LEE: Yeah.

CHUCK: How did that make you feel? When you heard the songs, when you heard about the marches or whatever it was that was taking place, what did you feel when that was coming from the United States and being blasted to you?

LEE: Yeah. I had two feelings. One is, I think we were proud of our countries having freedom so that people could protest. In fact, we told communists this all the time, you know, “This is what this war is about. It’s about freedom and we have freedom, you can see.” Well, they didn’t understand that because to them the communist party would have smashed them.

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: So they didn’t have any comprehension of that anyway, but we did, and I think we felt proud of our country that we could have anti-war demonstrations. At the same time destruction of property, locking down a school, not letting people go to class, all that kind of stuff, that made us angry. Some of the naïve comments by people that really didn’t know much about the war, some of actions, some of the movie actors, people that just kind of jump into this kind of stuff to get some more publicity, those kind of things did make us angry and we were very disappointed.

CHUCK: Lee, your book has gotten all types of acclaim and I know that the foreword was by John McCain who himself was a POW.

LEE: Right.

CHUCK: Did you know John in any way, shape or form before you wrote the book? Was there any connection, in other words, back in those days?

LEE: Yes. I went down 11 days. I was captured 11 days after John McCain. He went down October 27, 1967, I was November 7. We were in the same camp initially. Didn’t see each other. We were then 50 yards of each other, but we didn’t see each other. Then we both went to separate camps. We were away for a couple of years and then we came back to the Hanoi Hilton, where we had been originally. This time we were in larger rooms, different part of the compound, and at that point he was two rooms over from me within 30 yards, and then he moved in another one about 50 yards away, over the period of about two years.

Then at the very end when the agreements were signed, we were in the same compound and that time they opened the doors and let us go outside all day and mingle with the other POWs. This is the first time this has ever happened, but the agreements had been signed. We’d been told that we’re going to go home within 60 days and we would go home in groups. We were actually brought together in a group that would be released on, we didn’t know at that time exactly the date, but on March 14, and that’s what happened. So, in our release, even in the same little subgroup and we rode the bus to the airport together, but we had been walking together and talking for couple of months there in that compound.

Then since then, we’ve been friends. We see each other at reunions. I stop by his office in Washington occasionally. We’re not close friends, but we know each other and we definitely have a bond between because we were a part of a band of brothers and so we’re very loyal to each other in that regard. We don’t always agree on everything, but we certainly have great respect for each other. McCain was a very courageous guy in that situation. Am I right about that? Am I wrong? His courage and resisting the enemy. They offered him a chance to come home early. It was a propaganda move and he was badly wounded and could’ve justified it and he said, “No. I’ll stay here and go home in turn, when it’s my turn,” and he stayed there five more years.


LEE: Amazing.

CHUCK: Yeah. You know, Lee–

LEE: Talk about choices, Chuck.

CHUCK: Yeah. What a choice and, well, I shouldn’t speculate on whether I would or wouldn’t make it, but I’m not so sure that, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t stay longer. That is a testament. But Lee I want to ask you a question, you know, as we talk here and have been moving through the show, this has been a fascinating story, but the one thing that I do know is you say there are 14 leadership principles that you identify in the book. Before we go to our next break, which will be in just a few minutes, let’s talk about some of the principles, because those are the things that apply today.

LEE: Um-hm. Yeah. The book is organized into two sections. The first section has six chapters on leading yourself, the last eight are on leading others. So when you think about leading yourself, and some of it attracts to your message about ethical leadership and being an ethical person, first is knowing yourself, really knowing yourself. Well, I knew a lot about myself. There were some things though locked up and every time [37:39], I was able to see some things I didn’t like about myself and I made the commitment to change those things and work on them and I still do.

Chapter two is about guard your character. The idea behind that is, is that you’re always going to be tested every day, and you have to be proactive in guarding your character, and you have to make up your mind ahead of time about certain things and then kind of coach yourself through those situations. Don’t make tough character decisions alone. You need to involve somebody else that’s got wisdom, council you trust. I had a cell mate who actually did collaborate. One of the very, very few that actively collaborated, maybe less than 1% of us and he was my senior ranking officer and the number two person had the courage to relieve him of command. That made a huge difference. This guy is a courageous leader. His character really affected me. So, when a leader shows character it really raises everybody else up.

Then keeping a positive attitude, believing in a positive outcome is very important. The fact is that we must, we must fight to win. We must believe we can win, and I don’t mean win at all costs. I mean that we are committed to taking it all the way through and paying the price that it takes to achieve our goals.

Then we must be resilient. We must bounce back. Time and again in life, over and over, we bounce back, we bounce back. If you’re tortured, you’ve got to bounce back. If you get isolated, you’ve got to bounce back.

So, those are some of the key lessons right there and then when we get into leading others, there’s building the culture, and that’s a great responsibility of a leader. Communicating and over-communicating, developing others are just some powerful, basic common sense lessons there with stories from the POW camp and the stories of how– As a leadership consultant, I’m seeing those lessons applied by my clients with great success.

CHUCK: Lee, we’re going to take a break. My guest is Lee Ellis. This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio. Lee is a leadership consultant and coach. Literally clients all over C-level type leaders and telecommunications, health care insurance, energy, IT automotive, non-profit sectors, Fortune 500 clients. Lee was a POW in the Vietnam War and through that experience learned some incredible lessons that he shares in his book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Lee, when we come back from the break, I want to talk a little bit in more detail about some of those things that you just hit on so stick with us. This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio. We’ll be right back.

[Commercial break]

CHUCK: Well this is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio and what an incredible interview! Lee Ellis. Lee Ellis is a leadership consultant and coach. He is the president and founder of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team developing consulting and coaching firm and Lee has written an incredible book called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. And if you are, well, let’s say thirties or younger, you might be asking yourself, “What’s the Hanoi Hilton?” but for those of us that have been around a little bit, we remember the Vietnam War, and we remember Hanoi, and we remember the incredible sacrifice that men in uniform made and Lee happened to be an Air Force pilot who also turned into becoming a prisoner of war. Through that experience, and I think, Lee, you said it was five years, is that right?

LEE: Five and a half.

CHUCK: Five and a half years, Lee came out with 14 leadership principles that he has outlined in his book. Lee, you’ve developed what you refer to as a leadership behavioral DNA assessment.

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: I’m kind of interested in telling us a little bit about the assessment, because one of the things that I heard you talk about a minute ago was the importance of knowing yourself and sticking to the plan, and I’m kind of curious does the behavior assessment help you understand the “you” better?

LEE: Oh, definitely. I’ve been working with assessments for more than twenty years and assessed thousands of people, thousands of leaders. So the one thing that I’ve concluded, though, is that regardless of what your natural talents are, your behaviors, your natural personality, you can be a great leader. All you have to do is read the book John Adams by David McCullough about the two presidents and two great leaders who are our founding fathers, and they were an opposite on every trait of personality and behavior you can imagine. It looks different, two different people. John Adams talked all the time, Thomas Jefferson rarely spoke, never even had any contentious words with people. Different personalities. One guy argued all the time, the other one never argued with anybody. That sounds like some people I know–

[Chuck chuckles]

LEE: But it’s really understanding yourself so that you could be who you are, completely be confident with that and know what your talents and strengths are and also your struggles. Yet the sight of that is, and going down to, back to the lessons in the book, lesson nine is develop your people. When you really understand that, then you start looking for other people’s talents and helping them develop their talents. You also quit judging them for their struggles which may be different from your struggles and if they’re different from you on a particular trait, like if you’re very aggressive, you take charge, like I am, somebody tends to be not very aggressive. Their struggles just irritate me because passivity just bothers me. Okay?

CHUCK: Right.

LEE: But in reality those people will bring in something to the table that I don’t have. You know, my personality may be able to take territory and their strengths and struggles go with that, but their personality may be able to operate something in a way that I don’t have the patience to hang around and operate it with. They can do it well, and go deeper, and look at things from a different angle, and bring stuff to the table that I can’t bring to the table.

So I’ve learned to really value other people and to know from this assessment [44:07] know how to develop. I can see it visually. I’m a visual person. I can see their crafts and this continuum of “I’m here and you’re there”. Okay, we’re different. We’re not going to change that. I can adapt a little bit here and there. You can adapt a little here and there. We can work together better. But I really can respect you and help you develop who you are and this knowledge also helps me develop myself. So it’s a very powerful tool and we don’t do any leadership development or team building without it, because when team mates see, “Oh, that’s who you are? Okay. Now I know why you act the way you do. It wasn’t about me. It was really about you being you.”

CHUCK: Right. You know, I think that’s kind of a fascinating thing and I want to just stop with that for just a second because over the years I have had different assessments and it is kind of fascinating when I can understand more about who the other person is.

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: I do tend to find myself at least, less judgmental–

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: Because at least I can understand where they’re coming from versus if I’m not really connected to who they are or what their temper might be–

LEE: Um-hm.

CHUCK: What their personality might be, it becomes very easy to judge. I have to assume, now if this is incorrect, please tell me, but I have to assume that when you were in the POW camp with people in these small, confined areas, you probably ended up spending a lot of time learning about people and how they functioned and what they did bring to the table and how those things can work together. Is that a fair statement?

LEE: Well, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I really didn’t have much training for that, but it’d always been an instinct of mine to observe people and to ask myself, “Why did they do that that way? That’s different.” I just soaked up a lot of experience and watching people up close in a very vulnerable situation. Of course, we had to accept each other and learn to live with each other. You can imagine in a 6.5x7ft cell with three other guys, for the first nine months I was there. We just had to accept and let a lot of things just kind of slide away, like people’s personal habits. You know, just little things.

I can remember later in the larger cell there was a guy who brushed– We did have a toothbrush and sometimes they were cheap and didn’t work very well, but we had a toothbrush. But he would brush his teeth and make noises that were just so irritating and you couldn’t get away from it.

[Lee and Chuck chuckle]

LEE: So you just had to learn that, you know, this is not hurting me and I’ve got to give him some space to be himself. Actually, I think that that experience really helped me, prepared me, for marriage, because I was single when I was captured. I met my wife, the lady to whom I’ve been married now for 40 years, I met her a year after I got back and six months later we were married and that whole experience, I think, helped me learn to live with somebody up close who was very different than me.

CHUCK: You know, Lee, with the time that we have left, I’m fascinated by your career. You have taken an experience that for some people could have been jaded with posttraumatic stress disorder and completely derailed your life. You have taken that experience, learned from it and are helping so many people with the leadership and career direction that you provide. So, help me understand this for just a second. If somebody wants to secure your services, if they want to have you come and speak to their organization or to do some consulting with them about the leadership work that you do, how can they find you?

LEE: Well, I have three websites. One for speaking, one for the book and other stuff, and one for consulting, but the simplest way would probably be to go to the one called, that’s the name of the book, and on there there are links to my consulting and also links to my speaking information. There’s a lot of information on there. There’s quite a number of videos on there where you could go and hear me talk about further about my experience or about some of the lessons that we’ve talked about today. Probably is the place to start and then if you’re more interested in speaking, there’s and my consultant company is But you can get to all of those at

CHUCK: My guest is Lee Ellis. Lee is a leadership consultant and coach. Lee, you have a tremendous reputation in the industry. The book that you have written Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, it is a great read. Go to Either search for “Lee Ellis” or “Leading with Honor” and you’re going to find the book. I highly recommend that, but I also will say, from everything that I’ve been told, Lee, you’re certainly making a difference and it’s been an honor for us here at Straight Talk Radio to have you as a guest. Thank you so much.

LEE: Thank you, Chuck, and thank you for your message. I think yours and mine go together real close.

CHUCK: Well, it certainly does and this is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio and every choice we make does have a consequence. So, as I say so many times, make good choices, look past the illusions of life and know that success comes by having an impact on other people’s lives. Lee Ellis, our guest, impacts people’s lives in a positive way and certainly I hope as you listened to this show your life will be impacted as well. Join us next week. This is Chuck Gallagher with Straight Talk Radio. We’ll talk to you then.

You’ve been listening to Straight Talk with Chuck Gallagher. Tune in each week on, each Monday at 2 p.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. Eastern, as Chuck Gallagher, international speaker and author, cuts through the noise to share truth through transparency. Nationally-known guests talk about what’s important to you – your life, your concerns, and your success. Visit for more information and turn on to Straight Talk with Chuck Gallagher.

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