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Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams

by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, Naval Institute Press, 2013

Very few readers of this magazine are unaware of what happened to the American pilots taken prisoner after being shot down over North Vietnam. The amazing survival stories of John McCain, James Stockdale, Jeremiah Denton, Robinson Risner and scores of other POWs held in abysmal conditions at Hoa Lo prison—better known as the Hanoi Hilton—have been told in countless POW memoirs and other books.

Perhaps the most remarkable of the many noteworthy stories about the men imprisoned (and repeatedly tortured, physically and psychologically) in the Hanoi Hilton is that they overwhelmingly “described their lives as improved as a result of their POW experience.”Those are the words of Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland in Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton, a short but meaty book that examines what was behind “the surprisingly positive outcome that pervaded this group of men, the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history and one that remained unified and strong throughout years of torturous captivity.”

Fretwell—a radio station general manager who has studied strategic leadership— and Kiland—a former Navy officer and management consultant and the author of a previous book on Vietnam War POWs— have identified six guiding principles, or “characteristics,” the POWs developed during their long years of captivity. These characteristics led to the development of a culture behind bars that enabled them to survive the horrendous POW experience, and one that can be emulated in any type of organization in the 21st century.

The Big Six are: The Mission Leads, You Are Your Brother’s Keeper, Think Big and Basically, Don’t Piss Off the Turnkey, Keeping the Faith and The Power of We. The authors devote chapters to each of the six characteristics, showing how and why they worked in the prison and later in the POWs’ professional lives.

The book never gets far from the one man who was primarily responsible for developing the philosophy and making sure it was implemented, the remarkable James Bond Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale, who received the Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership in the Hanoi Hilton, was shot down on his 200th mission over North Vietnam in 1965 and held until 1973. Stockdale assumed the role of commanding officer behind bars. He developed the principles based on his study of the Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who preached selflessness, steadfastness to a belief system and rigorous self-discipline. It turns out that many of the components of the six characteristics mirror the psychological makeup of high-performance athletes. “This unlikely link between ancient philosophy, professional sports, and the otherworld experience of being a POW,”the authors note,“is the key to understanding how the Hanoi Hilton prisoners created a culture of resistance and success under circumstances in which other men had suffered irreparable harm.”

Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton comes on the heels of a similar book, Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton (2012), by former POW Lee Ellis. In it, Ellis describes his six years in captivity in North Vietnam and the 14 main lessons in leadership he gleaned from that experience.

“In the Hanoi Hilton I learned that leading with honor is about doing the right thing, even when it entails personal sacrifice,”Ellis writes.“Shortcuts may work for the moment, but almost everything of lasting value comes at a price.”


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.