4 Courageous Leadership Principles for Difficult Times

Consistently leading with honor is a challenge in good times but requires much more in difficult times. Two of my last three books have been based around leadership lessons learned during my early years as a Vietnam POW. In that crucible, our leaders proved their mettle.

Senior POW leaders like Risner, Stockdale, and Denton were there more than seven years. They arrived early and suffered the most, yet their decisions and actions set a high standard. Their example inspired us to go above and beyond to achieve our mission, vision, and values to “Return with Honor.”

To encourage and inspire you as you lead during this time, let’s review the four crucial lessons learned from their sacrifice under the most harsh and difficult times imaginable. One common denominator was not only critical there, but it’s essential for all successful leadership, and that’s courage.

“Courage is the critical “binding agent” to good leadership because you’ll need to make critical decisions in situations where there is perilous risk and no guarantees on the outcome.” [Tweet This]

In this Leading with Honor Coaching, I explain this is in more detail. Please watch –


Applying the following four courage lessons helps mitigate the latent feelings of fear and insecurity that we all get when we’re out of our comfort zone –

1. Courageously guard your character.

When times are tough and there are hard decisions to make, followers look to their leaders to see if they will come through and walk the talk. These are the times when leaders are exposed—are they willing to stand for their values? Is their character anchored in virtue, or do they fall into self-preservation out of fear to protect their image, position, power, or personal security?

2. Courageously seek wise counsel.

When Commander Stockdale was devising a new policy to guide POW behavior in responding to our enemy’s manipulative efforts to use us for propaganda, he was so isolated that he could not consult with his peers. So, he consulted with his only cellmate — 25-year-old Lt. JG, Dan Glenn. Fortunately, Dan proved to be a great source of wisdom and Stockdale listened.

“Genuine, secure leaders are willing to vet their ideas and listen to feedback from others before stepping out in a new direction.” [Tweet This]

3. Courageously clarify.

As young military officers, we learned to “Fight for Clarity.” Knowing that communications get twisted as they are passed along, clarify your message so that it communicates what is expected, any guidelines that are included, and who is accountable for carrying out the actions. And don’t forget to include the “commander’s intent.” What do you want it to look like when all is said and done?

4. Courageously stay connected.

Leadership is very much about influencing attitudes and emotions, so you must stay connected to your people. This was difficult in the POW camps because we had to take enormous physical risks. Likewise, it’s difficult in today’s crisis for a variety of reasons. We must fight to overcome these barriers. Intentional connection is essential for coordinated action to achieve the mission and for the emotional team support. In remote or stress-filled work environments, it’s especially important to over-communicate, making sure you are connecting to their hearts.

You Are Being Watched

Not to incite paranoia, but it’s important to know that you’re being watched. Regardless of your role, they’re watching you to see how you respond to this crisis. Following these four steps gives them confidence that “we can do this together,” and we can emerge victorious in this battle.

There has never been a better time to reflect on the Stockdale Paradox, coined by leadership author Jim Collins, friend and cohort of Admiral Stockdale on the Stanford faculty after the war.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Go and lead with courage, and your team will respond as you infuse confidence into their lives.

LE  [Tweet this Article]

Article Link“Surviving an Upside-Down World – How the POWs Led Through Change (Lee’s 47th Anniversary of his POW Release)


Life and Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

Two of Lee’s award-winning books share more in-depth stories and leadership lessons learned during his over five-year experience as a Vietnam POW. These are principles that we can apply today with our families, teammates, and fellow colleagues.

Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

– Learn how to lead yourself and others through the 14 principles that enabled the POWs to return with honor.

Purchase Your Copy

Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability

– Apply the Courageous Accountability Model as a means to clarify, connect, and collaborate and celebrate with your team.

Purchase Your Copy




One Comment on “4 Courageous Leadership Principles for Difficult Times

Ch, Maj Gen Steve Schaick
April 5, 2020 at 8:15 am

Thanks Lee. Appreciate your voice of calm wisdom!


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