Coaching Article – 4 Leadership Lessons Learned Under Pressure

Do you celebrate great memories at certain times of the year? We all tend to hang on to those special times in our lives. March is one of those special times for me, because it was March 14th, 1973, when my group was released from the POW camps. As they called our names, we stepped up, saluted the senior Air Force officer in charge, and were escorted aboard a C-141s aircraft. Those birds became known as Hanoi Taxis.

POW Group Release Photo (Lee Ellis shown on 4th row)


POW Group Release Photo (Lee Ellis shown on 4th row)


A Dramatic Journey after my POW Experience

After my release, the reality was that I had been in the Air Force for almost 8 years and had only been a student pilot, a combat pilot, and a POW. I had no leadership experience or formal training.

Yet within a few months after completing my pilot re-qualification and instructor certification, I became a flight commander, and then a section commander; and within three years after returning home I was promoted to major and selected as the chief of the Flight Standardization and Evaluation Division.

From the outside, this promotion process sounds unbelievable. As it turns out, even though I was typically the youngest and junior-ranking officer in the camp, the POW experience taught me some very important lessons that served me well once I returned.

Here’s my 5-minute coaching clip on this topic–please watch:


How I Learned My Lessons in the Camps 

You get to know a lot about a person when you are locked up 24/7 for months and years. During those times we shared stories of our lives—and in those conditions there was no pretending; we heard about successes and failures. Also, in that environment, we had courageous leaders who set an amazing example. Looking back, it was great training.

There was also lots of time to reflect on my stories—the good, the bad and the ugly. I came to know and accept myself. When called out to face our captors, we were usually alone and kept in isolation during times of “punishment” and torture. It was then we had to make tough decisions, often knowing the outcome would bring suffering. But that’s what our leaders had done, and I wanted to be more like them. If you think about it, that learning experience was just a more intense model of what works for everyone.

So, let’s look at four steps that we know will work –   


  1. Believe in yourself and listen to those who believe in you. The first time I went into the torture chamber and eventually gave in, agreeing to complete the three-page biography, I was devastated and overcome with shame. Even though the only true info I gave them was my father’s name (hoping that someday I’d get a letter), I sat on that filthy floor in leg irons and handcuffs crying that I could not beat them.

When I got back to my cell, my SRO (senior ranking officer), Capt. Ken Fisher, expressed his pride in me for my resistance and his confidence that I’d done my best and that was what mattered. His faith in me helped me bounce back and be ready to resist even stronger and longer the next time I was called out.

In the camps this adage became clear –


“The more that you believe in yourself and who you really are, the more courage and confidence you have to stand firm by your character and commitments.” [Tweet This]


  1. Make decisions and take ownership. In the camps, there were often times when you were the only one with the opportunity to connect with someone in solitary confinement. It was a big risk, but we knew it was important and did not hold back. We took action.

In the larger rooms, sometimes there would be something that was problematic and needed to be addressed. We didn’t ignore or sidestep it. We took responsibility and addressed it immediately. My observation is that this is a big challenge in our culture today. People seem less and less likely to address a problem, letting it slide and perhaps assuming someone else will take care of it.


“Don’t walk by problems and ignore them. When you see something that needs attention, either make it right or find the person who does own it and tell them to do it.” [Tweet This]


  1. Stay connected with your teammates and leaders. The POWs often risked their lives to stay connected. When you are connected, you can be a strong team and achieve your goals The Courageous Accountability Model below and our book and online course really take this home by addressing these four Cs: Clarify, Connect, Collaborate, Celebrate.


  1. Be courageous and live and lead with honor. The POW motto was really our mission, vision, and values in three words: Return with Honor. Thankfully, we had the Military Code of Conduct to guide us. But we all need clear standards to help us stay loyal to our values. We encourage you to download a copy of the Honor Code and Courage Challenge Card. They will guide you and help you coach yourself to be the person you want to be.


Thankfully most will never have to be a POW, but we all can learn and grow from the basic principle that carried them through to achieve their goal. We must learn to lean into the pain of our doubts and fears to courageously engage to do our duty, to keep our commitments, to be responsible, and to hold ourselves and others accountable.

LE [Tweet this Article]


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