Building Extraordinary Teams: Lessons from the ‘Hanoi Hilton’
Government executives could learn from Admiral Jim Stockdale’s principles for leading and unifying a diverse group of individuals.
During the Vietnam War, Admiral Jim Stockdale spent seven and a half years as a prisoner of war in the infamous prison euphemistically known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” As the senior naval officer in captivity there, Stockdale provided superb leadership under circumstances few could imagine. Frequently tortured and suffering severe deprivation, he nonetheless forged a unified team, enabling his fellow POWs to resist their captors and return home with honor and self respect.
Building extraordinary teams to accomplish an organization’s mission with excellence and integrity is the essence of leadership. During these challenging times, government executives would benefit from studying Stockdale’s principles for leading and unifying a diverse group of individuals. Stockdale assumed his leadership role in the prison camp with focus and determination and led with three key principles: selflessness, vision, and love. These are the same principles government executives can apply today to mold exceptional teams.
When Stockdale first arrived at the prison camp, a senior North Vietnamese officer confronted him and said, “You are very old and you are not well. You must think of yourself first.” Though Stockdale was, in fact, badly injured from his aircraft ejection, he never considered putting himself first. When he returned to the United States, he wrote:
From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea . . . It is a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is the epitome of high-mindedness, and idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure . . . This idea is you are your brother's keeper . . . That's the flip side of “What's in it for me?”
Stockdale showed his unselfish leadership by example. On one occasion, the North Vietnamese intended to force Stockdale to admit publicly America’s guilt in conducting an illegal war. Prior to heading to the downtown Hanoi studio, the captors provided Stockdale with a razor to clean up and left him alone in a room guarded by a soldier outside the door. Stockdale quickly shaved a strip down the middle of his head and cut his scalp. When the captors returned, they were aghast and decided they would clean him up and find a hat to cover his head. With the guards once again gone, Stockdale took a wooden bench in the room and smashed his face multiple times until his eyes were mere slits and his face bloodied and swollen. Upon entering the room and seeing Stockdale’s condition, the senior commander said, “You tell me what we are going to tell the general staff officer about the trip downtown after the way you have behaved.” Stockdale retorted, “You tell the major that the commander decided not to go downtown tonight!”
Stockdale also modeled selfless leadership by his willingness to listen carefully to the advice of others, even when these individuals were very junior in the chain-of-command. When Stockdale was developing his guidelines for conduct by the POWs, he bounced his ideas off Lieutenant (junior grade) Danny Glenn, his cellmate, someone 20 years his junior. When he had to make major decisions, including whether to allow an enlisted Navy Sailor to accept early release after he had memorized the names of all prisoners in the camp, Stockdale listened to the debate from all sides and then decided. He never approached a situation considering himself the smartest person in the room.
For government executives, creating extraordinary teams begins with the leader’s selfless and humble attitude. The British author and theologian C.S. Lewis challenges leaders with the following words:
If anyone would to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
Those in authority energize their followers when they do not focus on their own promotion, recognition, perks, or spotlight. Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good to Great, calls these Level V leaders—those who “blend extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” They are leaders not interested in their own acclaim, but make mission, people, and service their priority.
Stockdale and his senior leaders knew the POWs needed a common goal to unite them for the challenges they faced. The words “return with honor” emerged as their clarion vision. To the POWs this meant supporting one other with one aim in mind—get back home, but while imprisoned, confront their captors with courage and conduct themselves with integrity. This phrase provided the POWs with focus, motivation, and encouragement.
Additionally, Stockdale established a set of rules for the conduct of the prisoners, enabling them to keep their honor. Stockdale communicated these rules with an acronym—BACK-US. Each letter represented one of those rules. For example, the “B” required the prisoners to not bow fully to the enemy in public. To Stockdale, the last two letters, “US”—unity over self—were the most important. Those three words represented Stockdale’s approach to leadership.
Stockdale and his colleagues communicated this vision and set of expectations through an ingenious communication system. They used a 5x5 matrix composed of 25 letters (with C and K interchangeable) and tapped on their cell walls to one another, forming letters, words, sentences and paragraphs to send messages throughout the prison camp. Stockdale once remarked the POWs “risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other and maintain group integrity.”
For government executives, creating extraordinary teams requires a clear vision, concise expectations, and routine communications. As Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, the former University of Notre Dame president, once wrote, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” Leaders must study their organization, assess the environment, receive input from others to discover an inspiring picture of the future, and share the vision throughout the organization. Teams also need to know their boundaries and the inviolable organizational values that should guide their actions.
Love is not a word generally associated with leadership, but genuine concern for each person is a foundational element for creating extraordinary teams. The POWs, during and after captivity, never hesitated to attribute their love for one another as essential for resisting their captors and remaining unified. One of the most striking examples of this love in action was the relationship between Lieutenant (junior grade) Porter Halyburton, a white naval aviator from an upper-class family in Davidson, North Carolina, and Major Fred Cherry, an African-American Air Force pilot from a poor family in Suffolk, Virginia. The North Vietnamese believed forcing these two individuals to be roommates would lead to racial tensions and discord within the POW community. The opposite occurred as these two officers learned to care deeply about each other—Halyburton attending to Cherry’s extensive wounds and providing him necessary rations from his own food to nurse Cherry back to health and Cherry providing Halyburton with a purpose and mission. James Hirsch wrote the book Two Souls Indivisible to chronicle this remarkable relationship.
Stockdale loved his team and found his love reciprocated. On one occasion, the prison guards left Stockdale in an open courtyard for three days with legs and wrists shackled. While he endured heat, a never-ending attack by mosquitoes, and random beatings from prison guards, a prisoner in a cell next to the open courtyard snapped his towel, using the 5x5 communication matrix, with the message to Stockdale—GBUJS—"God bless you Jim Stockdale.” This message expressed the POW’s love and admiration for his leader and encouraged Stockdale to persevere.
For government executives, creating extraordinary teams requires a genuine concern for their people. This love must be sincere and offered to every member of the team, not just ones who have a natural connection with the leader because of personality, background or interests. This compassion is not sentimental, but an unconditional and unwavering commitment to others’ well-being. Leaders can develop love for their teams by living humbly, deciding in advance to love their teams, and showing love through sacrificial actions.
A true leader creates an organizational climate enabling mutual support and respect to flourish. Admiral Jim Stockdale created such a climate in the most demanding circumstances one can imagine. By following Stockdale’s example of selflessness, vision and love, government executives can forge teams capable of facing every opportunity and obstacle with unity, confidence, faith, courage, and integrity.
Arthur Athens is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He served as a White House fellow, special assistant to the NASA administrator, commandant of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and director of the Naval Academy’s Vice Admiral Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.