Most of what I’ve learned about leadership can be traced back to my time in the U.S. Air Force, when I was flying as a crew member on reconnaissance missions toward the end of the Vietnam War. In something of a twist of fate all these years later, everything I had learned was encapsulated and crystallized in one interview last week, when I had the honor of speaking with retired Air Force Col. Lee Ellis.
Ellis was a fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, and who spent the next five years as a prisoner of war. He learned a lot about leadership, too, and he went on to become a leadership consultant and author. His book, “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” which came out in 2012, was widely acclaimed as one of the best books on leadership ever written. When his forthcoming book, “Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability,” is released in September, there’s every likelihood that it will be equally well received.
I opened the interview by asking Ellis what he sees as the one essential leadership characteristic that’s most lacking in corporate America today. He said clearly, it’s courage:
People will tell you that they have a good character, and what that really means is, ‘I know what the right thing to do is.’ But it doesn’t mean they’re going to do it, because fear and greed will take them out — we see this all the time. Greed relates to an insecurity that deep down is probably a fear that if they mess up, they’re dead in the water. And there’s this pride of, ‘I have to look good. I am good, because I wouldn’t be the leader if I wasn’t really good. Therefore, because I’m the leader, and I’m really good, I can’t make mistakes — I can’t show weakness to anybody.’
A lot of people are terrified of showing weakness and vulnerability. That was what was so good about our leaders in the POW camp — they could not help but be vulnerable. They were beaten and tortured — they had to be vulnerable. They couldn’t say, ‘I always win, I never give in,’ because everybody knew they could make you do whatever they wanted you to do.
So fears, insecurities, and doubts cause people to cover up when they make mistakes. Instead of making a mistake, and correcting it to get back on course, which is what I recommend in my book, because we’re all going to make mistakes, people say, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t let anybody find out that I made a mistake.’ In today’s world, you know it’s going to be in the headlines. Well, you’ve got to be ready to take that, and say, ‘I made a mistake,’ and move on. Without courage, you’ll never be able to live honorably.
I asked Ellis what had compelled him to write “Engage with Honor” after having written “Leading with Honor,” and at what point he realized that there was more he needed to share. He said it had become clear to him that accountability is a huge issue in companies, and one in which his advice is routinely sought. He encapsulated that advice this way:
First of all, we have to start with ourselves, because we’re the only ones we really have control over, for the most part. As we lead ourselves, and start holding ourselves accountable to what it is that we say we believe and what we stand for, that sets the example, and gives us the credibility to hold others accountable. So as a leader, I have to be willing to face that test, and if I fail, I have to be courageous and confident enough to admit that I haven’t lived up to my commitments, and be vulnerable and transparent about that.
The irony is that that doesn’t make us look weaker — it makes us look stronger. People are afraid to do that, because they’re afraid that other people will see them as weak. But in reality, when somebody is doing his best to walk the talk, and then makes a mistake, and quickly says, ‘I messed up,’ that gives people confidence that you are a person who’s paying attention, and that you’re working hard to be an honorable person and an accountable person. And it sets the example for others that you do everything you can to keep your word, but if you reach a point where you just can’t — and we all run into that sometimes — then you let somebody know. It takes a lot of courage; it takes a strong character; and it takes a real commitment.
The next step, Ellis said, is to provide clarity to others:
You can’t hold people accountable for things that are not really clear. So it starts at the 100,000-ft. level by clarifying mission, vision, values. The leadership has to determine that for the organization, and then has to clearly communicate it, all the way to the lowest level. Because if the people at the lower levels don’t understand that, they’re going to require a lot more supervision and time to manage them. Sometimes they’re not going to be aligned — you want alignment, so the people at the lowest level who are doing the work are aligned in the mission, vision, and values with the people at the highest level who are making the big decisions.
That alignment is so important, and it requires clarity at all levels. Clarity at the 50,000-ft. level would be about professional standards. If you’re an engineer, what are the professional standards? What are the organizational standards? And then all the way down to the job itself, having clarity about what the expectations are. What should a successful outcome look like?
Ellis also shared his thoughts on a range of other leadership issues, including the generational and gender-related dimensions of leadership. I’ll cover those in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.