Leading with honor—do you have what it takes?

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Are you alarmed by the frequency of ethical scandals in recent years? No doubt, you have seen the headlines about Wall Street greed, but ethical problems are just as prevalent on Main Street where bookkeepers, purchasing agents, and business owners violate the trust that others have placed in them. Think of the headlines in recent years: a highly respected coach resigned for covering up NCAA violations by his players; a Congressman resigns for tawdry behavior; a religious leader cheated on his wife, another is accused of using his authority to fleece the flock; teachers changed students’ responses on standardized tests and administrators collaborated in cover-up; a college inflated the average SAT score of their students to improve its image.

What is happening to our society? Does anyone care about honorable leadership? What can you do about it? What have others done that might guide those of us who seek to turn the tide in this onslaught against character-based leadership?

It seems ironic that some of the best examples of leading with honor come from the POW camps of North Vietnam, an environment so life-threatening that one might expect to see frequent examples of self-centered, self-serving leadership. But when life and limb were on the line, these brave leaders chose honor rather than comfort, humiliation rather than cooperation with the enemy. Their courageous service can inspire and show us what is required to lead with honor. Let’s look at some of the lessons they offer to us today.

Know yourself. The POWs leaders were experienced and strong yet they had no choice but to be humble. The enemy used torture and isolation to try to break their will and force them to cooperate in making propaganda. They were vulnerable, stripped to their core; they could not pose or pretend they were something they were not. Fortunately, they were solid—healthy people with a strong character that enabled them to lead with honor through the most unimaginable humiliation.

If you don’t know yourself and have a peace about who you are, your fears and insecurities will take you out. Rather than pursuing your passion and purpose using your unique talents, style, and convictions, you will constantly be comparing yourself to others and trying to guide your life by someone else’s ways and standards. Alternatively, when you know and accept yourself, you can be authentic, leading from your own true north. Objectively knowing your strengths gives you confidence, while awareness of your weaknesses gives you humility.

Few will ever be POWs, but eventually we will all face situations that expose who we really are. Spend time with yourself and go deep. Accept who you are, but realize there is always room for growth; work every day to build yourself strong so you can lead authentically, from the inside out.

Clarify your values and standards and commit to them. The POWs had a uniform code of conduct that everyone knew and was charged with following. It acted like signs along the road giving direction and providing a framework for decisions, choices, and behaviors, helping them stay on the right path even in the most difficult situations.

Unfortunately, most people have only generic assumptions and a superficial understanding about their moral values and ethical commitments. Jeb Magruder, White House advisor who went to jail, said that he had been taught right but somewhere along the way he “lost his ethical compass.” We are all cut from the same cloth as Magruder and without regularly clarifying our commitments, we will drift off course as well.

Confront your doubts and fears. Fears and insecurities take out more leaders than anything else and they generally can be traced back to the first point above—your identity—knowing who you are and being comfortable with yourself. Even the smartest, toughest, and best leaders face insecurities and fears.

The POW leaders were tough warriors but they all struggled with fear. Commander Jim Stockdale endured frequent physical abuse and more than four years in solitary confinement, so naturally, there were fears, but he did his duty and suffered the consequences. Great leaders know that fear is the norm, and they know they must lean into the pain of their fears to do what they know is right. Courage does not mean that you are not afraid, but that you do what is right when it feels scary or unnatural.

Connect with your support team. In your struggle to lead with honor, you are like any other warrior—it’s not good to fight alone. That’s why the enemy tried so hard to isolate the POWs in North Vietnam and why the POWs risked everything to keep the communication lines open. Even the toughest POWs relied on the counsel and encouragement of their teammates. Authentic leaders realize they cannot see every situation objectively. On the tough choices, you will usually need the perspective of someone who is outside the issue to help you evaluate the situation. Build a network of a few key advisors who can help you navigate the treacherous waters ahead.

Our culture desperately needs men and women who will lead with honor. Don’t take it for granted that you will lead honorably. Engage in the battle required to guard your character. To be prepared, know yourself, clarify your values, standards, and commitments, confront your doubts and fears, and connect with your support team. Then you are ready to face the giants and avoid the headlines of failure.

Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of "Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton," in which he shares his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps. As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, he consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development and succession planning. For more information, visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.


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