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“Our culture needs courageous servant leaders. These are men and women with clear vision and strong character who inspire excellence and instill confidence. They don’t give up, compromise on principle, or fall for deceit. We need leaders who are dedicated to leading with honor.
So begins Lee Ellis’s book Leading with Honor: Lessons from Hanoi Hilton. So far, so typical. This type of plea for higher standards and better skills was found in almost every leadership or management text.
This book is different. This book is more memoir than management. It is an inspiring memoir.
Ellis was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. He spent 64 months under “exemplary leaders” at the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison. He discusses the leadership structures in the cells and the courage displayed by American officers. Each chapter tells a story about bravery, organisation, and leadership and ends with a brief take-home message about how to apply these lessons in less extreme situations at work.
Ellis encourages readers to keep in touch with others. It was the best way for Ellis to ensure that he and his fellow POWs weren’t fighting alone, and it builds resilience. It works in modern business environments, and projects are no exception. You can build a great team and not try to be the hero.
Positive thinking is one of these strategies to build resilience. Ellis writes, “Manage your emotions like they’re contagious.” You want to make sure that your core team and you can handle any problems that may arise on your project. Consider your emotions as a contagious disease that can cause harm to others.
Develop your interpersonal skills
You can lead authentically if you know your strengths and how to tap into them.
Ellis writes that we should expect our leaders “to tell the truth, keep their promises and consistently live up to their word.” “We must hold leaders accountable for leading with honor. We should start with ourselves.”
Ellis surveyed 300 managers during his research. Listening and relationship skills were two of the most prominent leadership traits. These are the traits we should cultivate in our own lives, and they are the ones illustrated so beautifully throughout this book.
The book was more meaningful than reading about business turnaround. I also found the lessons to be easy to follow and not too formulaic. Ellis laments the lack of courage in modern political and corporate leadership. He also shares a few funny stories about small resistance actions that helped the POWs to maintain their self-esteem and autonomy. It is important to stay positive, even in difficult times, as a leadership lesson. It’s easy to lead when things are going well. To navigate through a storm, it takes courage and skill.
Communication in the face of adversity
How can you maintain relationships with others while being held in small cells? The POWs discovered ways to communicate using codes and passing messages.
Ellis shares amazing stories about the importance of communication, including how codes can be used to communicate. Two POWs were in their final days when they received treatment by passing messages between cells. The messages were repeated by military personnel constantly as a way to ensure everyone got them. Ellis writes that “To ensure that an important message is understood and received, we always sent it multiple time through many channels.” This is something we should keep in mind when working on projects.
The thing that th