by Amber Baillie
Academy Spirit staff writer
2/25/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.(AFNS) -- A
prisoner of war held in the "Hanoi Hilton" for five and a half years
shared his compelling story of imprisonment and success with U.S.
Air cadets Feb. 21-22 during the 2013 National Character and Leadership
Like Sen. John McCain and others, retired Col. Lee Ellis was held captive after his plane was shot down Nov. 7, 1967.
Ellis spoke to the NCLS crowd just one month shy of the 40th anniversary
of his March 14, 1973 release from the infamous prison on the
leadership lessons he learned during his confinement.
"The story is so powerful, it doesn't matter whether you're a cadet,
four-star general, CEO or grandmother," Ellis said. "Courage was the
most outstanding quality during that experience, put together with
character and authentic leadership."
The 14 lessons, featured in Ellis' book "Leading with Honor: Leadership
Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton," include knowing yourself; being
authentic; guarding your character; confronting your doubts and fears;
and staying positive, Ellis said.
"Until you know what your strengths, struggles, passions and purpose
are, it's hard to have the confidence to actually have courage, because
you might be worried somebody will see the real you," Ellis said.
Ellis's personal definition of courage is "leading into the pain of your fears to do what you know is right," he said.
"I've coached CEOs who didn't want to give positive feedback because
they said they felt uncomfortable, when really it was their fear of
looking stupid, hokey or being too soft," Ellis said, who coaches
Fortune 500 senior executives. "I've also coached people on how to fire
somebody because they didn't have the courage to do it. It's not just
about courage under fire but courage in your day-to-day leadership."
As an Air Force officer, Ellis ran an ROTC program and served as vice
commandant of Maxwell Air Force Base's Squadron Officer School.
"Most of my last 20 years has been dedicated to helping people and developing leaders," he said.
Ellis entered the Air Force in 1965 after receiving his commission from
the University of Georgia's ROTC program as a distinguished
graduate. Ellis then attended flight school and F-4 Phantom combat crew
training with Capt. Lance Sijan.
"In Vietnam, we weren't 18-year-old kids," Ellis said. "I had been
through ROTC, flight school, combat crew training and had already flown
53 combat missions. We were pretty seasoned warriors, and had a real
commitment to follow the code of conduct and be a good soldier."
Faith in God, the U.S. and his fellow Airmen brought him hope amidst continual torture and seclusion in North Vietnam, he said.
"Even though we were isolated, we still had covert communication and
camaraderie," Ellis said. "We were in it together and it was us against
"Pilots often like to think they're in control, even when they're not,"
Ellis said. "We were mostly pilots and aircrew who believed that someday
we were going to leave," Ellis said. "I personally believed that when
they didn't kill me, and I made it through my ejection and capture, that
God had a purpose in my life and I was going to somehow walk out of
Despite the hardship, there was a hidden treasure to be found among the
trials of being a POW, as the experience gave many who survived the
experience the strength of character to overcome difficulties and
"There are 16 admirals and generals that came out of the POW camps,"
Ellis said. "Out of 400 to 500 people, there have been two U.S.
senators, one of them a nominee for president, a number of congressmen,
CEOs and two or three presidents of universities after the experience. I
think we all, in a way, never want to do it again, but benefited from
the hardships we had there. We learned lessons that have stood us well
throughout the years."
Among his other awards, Ellis is the recipient of two Silver Star
Medals, the Legion of Merit Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple
Heart Medal and the POW Medal.