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“It is my core values and commitment that propel me to courageously engage in that battle”

Lee Ellis is more than an inspiration to Dasein. He symbolizes character, authenticity, assertiveness, seriousness, perseverance, principles which have guided Dasein since its foundation in 1995. For this reason, there is no one better than the remarkable president of Leadership Freedom, one of the great names among global leaders, to inspire you in this special anniversary edition!

During the Vietnam War, after 53 missions in enemy territory, your plane was hit. You managed to parachute to safety but landed in a field of vietnamese snipers and were captured, subsequently being held prisoner for more than five years. What lessons did you learn from such an adverse situation?

Because we had a lot of time to reflect and think about things in the POW camps, I really got to know myself. What are my strengths and struggles? What are my fears? Am I authentic, or do I hide behind a persona or façade—I wanted to be real, authentic in every situation.

I learned to be positive and expect a good outcome, even in difficult circumstances. Communication is so important. We had to work hard to communicate, because the enemy tried to keep us from communicating. Another important lesson learned is being resilient and bouncing back. We got knocked down and tortured, and what we learned was resilience.

Our senior POW leaders suffered first and most often and the most torture and hardship. They were committed to doing their duty in spite of the heavy costs. They leaned into their doubts and fears to do the right thing and that was a powerful example. We wanted to be like them, so they raised our level of courage and commitment by their example. My goal became to do the right thing regardless of my fears or the risks associated with the situation.

Courage is cited by the english author and management specialist, Simon Sinek, as the main requirement for inspired leadership. According to him, to lead is to have the nerve to risk your own neck, to take the first step and, therefore, influence teams. Do you agree with this point of view? Why?

I do agree with Simon’s statement. From years of experience as a leader and leadership consultant, I’ve seen that the most effective way to get people to develop and grow is for the leader to set the example. Leaders go first, and setting the example requires courage and vulnerability.

Moreover, leading with honor and accountability requires a mindset of humility—a willingness to engage in the struggle to balance ego and confidence with concern and caring for others. Like many attributes of leadership, this tension between confidence and humility seems paradoxical and it’s rarely easy for anyone. Believe me, as a “take-charge” personality and a former fighter pilot, I experience that tension daily. It is my core values and commitment that propel me to courageously engage in that battle.

Growth is always a struggle involving courage because it requires making hard choices to let go of what feels natural, good, and comfortable in order to reach for what we truly want—to live and lead with honor. It’s tough because we have to: guard our character, courageously lean into the pain of our doubts and fears, and steadfastly stay committed to our goals and responsibilities. It’s a lifelong process and that’s why we have to be resilient warriors—engaged in the ever-present struggle between our ego and humility. Courageously growing with this leadership mentality is not for the faint-hearted.

In your new book Engage with Honor, you highlight values such as character and courage. Please expand on the importance of these principles for modern-day leaders and why having courage is so important.

In my new book, Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability, I do share three key attributes that set our POW Camp leaders apart and enabled them to suffer and sacrifice while inspiring the rest of us. They are:

  1. Character – They knew right from wrong; they embraced the military Code of Conduct for POWs as the standard. Have you clarified what you stand for? What are your non-negotiables?
  2. 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 in” to them to keep your commitments, make tough decisions, and do what’s right?
  3. 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 C’s, 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.

In recent interviews, you highlighted the importance of self-awareness and the capacity to overcome obstacles as a basis for personal development. Please explain why.

True self-awareness requires an honest, personal evaluation of one’s natural strengths and struggles. What are my natural gifts and abilities, and what are my areas where I need help from others? Then to go even deeper in self-awareness, we must also evaluate the problem of human nature—the potential for good and evil are both in our DNA. Sitting in the shivering cells of the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn concluded that the line separating good and evil runs not through states or political parties, but through the heart of every human being. Another famous prisoner, Victor Frankl, Viennese psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of the classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, gave us very clear advice on how to handle this issue saying, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

To make the choice between good and evil takes courage. Evil is deceptive and can be very appealing to shallow, short-sighted desires. Doing good and making the right choice often means choosing the hard road to oppose the temptations of pride, fear, laziness, and negativity. But the honor that comes from doing one’s duty, or serving others in need, is a long-term view that is only possible through the combination of  honor and its guardian companion accountability, required for good self-governance and healthy leadership. This is the key to overcoming obstacles and growing as an honorable leader.

Creativity is currently perhaps one of the most admired skills. Do you believe that “being inventive” is an ability that anybody can develop? Why?

Being inventive and creative is crucial to future success for individual and organizational success. In my last book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, I talk about the need for creativity and innovation. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Plato. We certainly found that to be true in the bare and deprived conditions of the POW camps. Innovation and creativity were essential for survival. Innovation also is essential for survival in business. In a “2010 Global CEO Study” conducted by IBM, 60 percent of the 1,500 + CEOs interviewed said they believed creativity would be the most important attribute leaders must possess during the years ahead. The study found that most CEOs don’t believe their enterprises are adequately prepared for the twenty-first century business environment, which will be characterized by dynamically shifting global power centers, rapidly transforming industries, exponentially escalating amounts of information, more intrusive government regulation, and dramatically changing customer preferences.

The most successful leaders, the IBM study concludes, will highly value creativity and consistently pursue innovative ideas. They will readily welcome disruptive innovation, drop outdated approaches, take balanced risks, and be willing to totally reinvent themselves and their companies when necessary. With an understanding that this shift needs to happen, any leader can make the conscious decision to embrace creativity and innovation.

I believe we can all be creative in some way if we allow ourselves to think creatively. Still, some people have a natural talent for being creative with ideas—an out of the box type of creativity. They are the ones on the edge, ahead of the rest of us, pushing the limits. Find those people and manage them well and they can make you more successful—though they are not easily managed.

Brazil is currently going through one of the most serious political and economic crises in its history, which is having a negative impact on the market and industry. For senior executives, what attitudes do you believe are necessary to improve this situation and stimulate a more positive outlook?

When you’re in dark times as an individual or nation, it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials. There are three positively-focused tips that I use to help me find value in times of trial –

  1. Go Deep—Find Meaning and Make Changes. Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values. In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. We have the opportunity to find meaning in our suffering and meaning is a treasure worth finding. The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Go Long—Gain Wisdom and Experience. Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational; making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership. Wisdom gained through the experience of hard times helps us better navigate future minefields. Persevering through tough times also increases our confidence, preparing us for future challenges that will surely come. On the other hand, leaders devoid of crucible experiences are likely to be overly confident about their ideas, and surprisingly more susceptible to fears. Courageously facing our fears in the difficult times gives us both humility and real confidence.
  3.  Don’t Go It Alone. When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone—you need supporters in your corner—people who care about you and have your back. They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging.  Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference. Just knowing someone is near—that you are not standing alone—can provide the needed inspiration, courage, and energy to persevere, even when everything in you is saying it’s too tough to keep going. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine knows it’s not good to fight alone.

You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them.

We like to share with our readers things that inspire important brazilian leaders. Please indicate a book and a film that have influenced or were important in your professional life and explain these choices.

A book that I have read multiple times is Viktor E. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Based on his own experience at Auschwitz and the experiences of those he treated in his practice as a psychologist, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory—known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)—holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful. It’s a stimulating book for me as a leader, author, and leadership consultant.

A film that has been influential to me has been the The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a 2003 epic high fantasy adventure film based on the second and third volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It portrays so dramatically the interior and exterior struggles between good and evil, courage and fear, and resilience. I use a line from the movie frequently during my keynote presentations that says, “There is no freedom without sacrifice. There is no victory without loss. There is no glory without suffering.”

Are there any people that currently inspire you? Why?

Many of my clients inspire me, because they are diligently trying to improve themselves personally and professionally. One example is Ralph de la Vega, Vice Chairman of AT&T Inc. and CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and AT&T International. He is also the Foreword author for my new book, Engage with Honor. His personal story of coming to America from Cuba is dramatic and inspiring as well as his personal philosophy of leadership that has led to his success in the business world. He shares his personal story in his book called Obstacles Welcome: How to Turn Adversity into Advantage in Business and in Life.

Another example is long-time client Carol Burrell, President and CEO of Northeast Georgia Health System. Over the last ten years, this healthcare institution has risen to the ranks as Georgia’s #1 hospital and a Top 10 Hospital in America as rated by CareChex. To get this distinction, she has maintained a fierce determination to lead the right way, courageously wrestled with issues that have risen in the organization, and strived to unify her team to work together to evolve and improve.

Is there a particular phrase or teaching that always comes to your mind?

One phrase that originated in the Vietnam POW camps has served and helped guide me over the last 40+ years. In my work today, I call it the Courage Challenge – “I define courage as doing what’s right even when it doesn’t feel natural and doesn’t feel safe. Overcoming fears to do what we know is right—that’s leading with honor.” When I face personal and professional decisions on a daily basis, this statement has kept me accountable to living and leading with honor.



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