1,955 Days—Improving My German and Chin-ups One Day at a Time


Unity compound of Hoa Loa (Hanoi Hilton): Note dish rack and water tank for bathing and washing in courtyard.













We often hear of the value of 20/20 hindsight when looking back at the past.  In facing the future of 2012, I believe there is great benefit and encouragement to be gained by looking back—and with the advance release of my new book, LEADING with HONOR: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton underway [i], I’ll focus this year’s blog entries primarily on pressure-tested lessons learned from the POW camps of North Vietnam.

Knowing that this week most readers will be reflecting on the New Year and what “resolutions” they want to make, I’d like to encourage your ongoing development with some words about the power of being committed to working on something one day at a time for the next year.

In the early years of our POW captivity, communicating quietly and covertly without getting caught was slow and tedious, taking much of our day.  Still there were down times when we had to find ways to “escape” the dreary and depressing environment of a gray, smelly dark dungeon, isolated from family, ten-thousand miles from home.

As a goal-oriented “action” person locked in a 6.5’ x 7’ cell, I found myself driven to find ways to make the time count.  Like most of my compatriots, achievement was a high value and yet here we were cut off from the normal outlets for entertainment and recreation, and especially the resources for personal growth and intellectual stimulation.  We had no books or magazines and certainly no television.  Watching geckos stalk and capture bugs was a highlight. Out of necessity and boredom, we learned the value of committing to doing something—almost anything that would give a sense of meaning.  Usually this meant a daily routine—a regimen that over time would yield progress and growth.

Some guys like cellmate Glenn Myers called it a “program.”  He had the most demanding exercise program I had ever seen and he stuck to it religiously.  I had “projects,” and though I’m usually a better starter than finisher, the unyielding harsh routine of that highly structured environment helped me stick with those projects for an entire year and sometimes two or more.  After a while I realized that the value of that regular commitment was awesome.  In hindsight, it has contributed to success in every aspect of my life.

I was a horrible language student in college because I had poor study habits and was not motivated to learn a language.  As a POW, I took on the project of learning three languages simultaneously with a commitment that was driven by one thing—never let a day go by without getting better.  At the time, it was really about having something meaningful to do. I had goals and a small group of three guys that I worked with regularly.  At the end of two years, I was near fluent in Spanish and French and had a working vocabulary in German.  During that same time, we memorized several long poems and the names of more than 200 POWs.  We also learned many other things including the basics of differential calculus.

Like my friend Glenn, most of us adopted physical exercise regimens.  One day, shortly after moving into the Son Tay camp, we noticed a 2×6 crossbeam in the washhouse that was just the right height for doing a chin-up. The first time I tried it I was so weak that all I could do was four. Over the next two years, I practiced every time we had an unsupervised moment in the washhouse. My strength and form improved slowly to the point I could do thirty chin-ups and fifteen pull-ups, more than doubling anything I had ever been able to do in my life.

The lesson for me was that we can do so much more than we imagine if we make a consistent effort.  Those years of being committed to various regimens made me a believer in the power of maintaining regular practice over time.  At a time when I was “doing time” I wanted to make time count.  When I was captured, I could never have imagined—let alone accepted—that I would be there 1,955 days.  Fortunately, I learned how to stay on a regimen until the goal is met.

This is the powerful key to leadership and personal growth.  As an executive coach, my goal is to get the coachee to practice new, more effective behaviors until they become habit.  For example, active listening is often a challenge for many leaders.  It’s difficult because they have to give up control of the agenda and set aside their opinions about an issue long enough to hear the other person’s view and then respond with respectful appreciation.  This kind of practice is painful and unnatural, yet when it becomes a habit, can yield powerful influence with others.  And just as important, the leader usually learns some things he or she needs to know.

One of my clients realized she needed to coach one of her direct reports (I’ll call Bill) on his way of responding to others.  He took it well and began to practice better behaviors of social intelligence.  The results impacted a wide range of peers and associates who were excited and uplifted by their interactions with the “new” Bill.  The changes made over a year by this one individual significantly energized the team.

This year is a leap year so we have 366 days to practice our regimen. When you take on your self-development as a “project,” will you choose to steadily plug away one day at a time?  Declare your commitment and let us know about it. Share your stories of victory and progress in your personal growth. Your hindsight could be an inspiration for the rest of us in the coming year. 



– Do you have an encouraging story of personal growth? If so, share a comment below or on Facebook.

Leading with Honor is currently available online at Bulk savings packages are available, as well as special discounts for leaders wanting to study this book with their teams. 

i. Available now at  The nationwide release in bookstores and online marketers is scheduled for late spring 2012.

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