Former Vietnam POW Orson Swindle tells the story of his first meeting with his legendary Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) in the Hanoi Hilton, then-Cdr. Jim Stockdale:
In the spring of 1967, I was in my fifth month as a POW and continuing to be kept in solitary confinement in a small cell. Our cellblock consisted of about eight cells with solid concrete, brick and plaster walls. We had no vision of anything other than the walls. We communicated with each other by tapping on walls or by lying on the filthy floor, peeking under the door to clear the area of guards and then whispering to one another along the passageway. These were very bad days testing our spirit, our will, and our physical and mental stamina.
The cellblock was occupied by about 18 junior officers, I being the newest POW. I was the only POW without a cellmate, so whispering when the guards weren’t around was uplifting to me. One evening there was activity, the familiar muffled sounds of guards moving a new POW into the cell block about three cells down from me at the dead end of the passage way.
The following day when the guards vacated the block, I was down on the floor whispering to “new guy” to identify himself and get into the communications stream. Then-Commander James Bond Stockdale identified himself. I was overwhelmed by his presence. We were aware he had been recently undergoing intense interrogations and physical punishment. Our admiration for him, the senior ranking American in North Vietnam, was incredible. In the days that followed, Jim was not communicating — he was recovering both physically and mentally from his most recent painful ordeal (sadly, there were to be many more for him).
One day we junior officers were having a “debate” over some issue and finding no resolution. I told the group, “Hang on for a minute, and let me ask “the Old Man” what we should do.” Commander Stockdale came up after a couple of calls, and responded with a wise answer to our problem.
Now fast forward to early February, 1973 — six years later. We have been told we are to be released. In the large court yard area of Ho Loa prison, the Vietnamese are allowing one or two rooms to mingle in the court yard or go over by the windows to the big cells (now uncovered) where we could talk to other POWs. Commander Stockdale limps over to my window, and says, “Hi, I’m Jim Stockdale, who are you?” We literally had never seen each other.
I replied, “Sir, I am Orson Swindle, and I want to thank you for all the leadership and inspiration you have given me which help me survive this past six years.” I continued, “I remember a day back in the Spring of 1967 when you moved in to my area of the cellblock, and recall how having your around reminded me of my duty and what was expected of me. You gave me confidence. I really respect you as a leader.”
Jim smiled and said, “Orson, I remember you and those difficult days so well. I was really depressed and down on myself. I want you to know that when you whispered, “Hang on for a minute, and let me ask the Old Man what we should do” — you reminded me of who I was and of my duty to each of you. Orson, you helped me survive, too.”
(Excerpt of a speech Orson Swindle gave in June 2005)
As the senior ranking prisoner-of-war at the Ho Loa Camp in Hanoi, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, then-Commander Stockdale was trapped between an untested Military Code of Conduct devised after the POW failures of the Korean War and the fact that his North Vietnamese captors were willing to employ torture and deprivation to break him for propaganda purposes. Stockdale and his followers had to craft their own society and rules to survive. Knowing they would break under torture, they devised their own rules that allowed for failure in the moment without failure in the mission. Their strategies and tactics adhered to the Military Code of Conduct where they could, and yet they devised their own approach, when necessary, to achieve their group mission of “Return with Honor.”
Molding a High-Performance Team
Stockdale and other officers in leadership positions molded the POWs into what we now would call a high-performance team. Using a sports psychology model, Stockdale’s personal beliefs and leadership style created a culture in which the POWs:
- Articulated and embraced a common mission (“Return with Honor”);
- Developed a group credo (“I am my brother’s keeper”);
- Created simple and clearly defined rules of the road (“BACK-US” – which was an acronym for “Don’t BOW in public; Stay off the AIR; Admit no CRIMES; Never KISS them goodbye; and “US” could be interpreted asUnited Statesor Unity over Self);
- Stressed personal responsibility for how they behaved and reacted to their environment (a principle shared by Stoic philosophy and sports psychology);
- Focused their energies on the things they could control (often, just their own reaction);
- Refused to spend energy on what they could not control (much of their environment);
- Turned their adversary’s offensive moves to their mission’s advantage whenever possible (“Isolate me and I will use the time to learn. Torture me and I will use it to torment you”);
- Accepted failing, without accepting failure (“Get up, dust off, and learn from failing”);
- Visualized and affirmed success, while competing with each other for even further success;
- And united against a common adversary (in sports or business, we might use the terms opponent or competitor, but since the stakes were life-and-death, words such as adversary or enemy are more appropriate).
Like any high-performance team, they developed effective means to communicate critical information, avoided expending resources on non-critical issues, held each other to their collective standards, encouraged each other, competed with each other, embraced the moment in which they found themselves, and balanced realities that were often in tension.
Stockdale was a devotee of Epictetus, the Stoic Greek philosopher, whom he studied atStanfordUniversity, while he earned a master’s degree in International Relations and Marxist Theory. Epictetus’ Stoicism is the key to understanding Stockdale’s character, focus, and determination. Stoic teachings, the Greek Olympian tradition, and sports psychology all merged in the Hanoi Hilton and contributed to the POWs’ successful strategies and tactics to survive and thrive while in captivity.
Developing the Mission
In looking at what they accomplished, it must be acknowledged that the Hanoi Hilton POWs were an unusual and remarkable group of POWs – in stark contrast to the POW populations of previous wars. Almost all of them were college-educated (many with graduate degrees) and older than your averageVietnamsoldier or sailor (the POWs’ average age was 35). Most of them were seasoned military aviators, with survival training and professional experience making quick and good decisions in high-stress situations.
Stockdale developed many specific leadership philosophies while in captivity, but in an overarching sense he understood the need for several conditions if the POWs were to succeed. These lessons – honed in captivity – served the POWs well and provided the foundation for a highly productive organization. We would assert that the POWs also used these lessons in their subsequent careers:
- Having A Cause To Die For: Unit cohesion had to be maintained, as did adherence to principles – with little or no visual or verbal contact. Military discipline and the Code of Conduct alone could not accomplish this. By carefully choosing a few simple principles that most POWs could embrace, Stockdale set the ground rules for an organization that could be self-guiding and self-perpetuating. He set goals that were in the men’s own self-interest as well as in that of everyone else. Communication strategies had to be developed to overcome the forced isolation. This leadership philosophy practiced diligently over many years by the majority of the POWs can serve as a model for managing and influencing dispersed or virtual teams.
• Maintaining Strong Cultural Norms: By virtue of their military training, the POWs were already imbued with a strong culture. But, the physical conditions of captivity created unique challenges to maintain that organizational culture. They were a group of more than 700 men, separated by walls and spread across geographically dispersed prison camps. This unusual “organization” had to establish and maintain a strong culture for many years. Stockdale needed to create and aim for consistent goals that could be sustained for a long time – without much visual or verbal interaction (other than the tap code – their life blood). These goals had to be adopted by enough POWs to create cultural “norms.” They had to be infectious; by necessity, they had to spread on their own. He and the other POWs succeeded in maintaining these norms under severely restrictive conditions for five to eight years: unit cohesion, operational consistency, focus in the face of physical and organizational barriers. These can apply to business and organizational leadership almost anywhere.
• Keeping The Faith: The POWs needed to keep their perspective amid isolation, deprivation, and torture. Attitude played a major role in improving morale and ensuring survival. Some of the most severely wounded prisoners healed; indeed, it was not the degree of injury that determined death or survival. On the contrary, the POWs maintain that attitude was the key factor. Humility and perspective were critical factors in providing the motivation for keeping the faith.
Daily tactics for fighting their war often boiled down to finding things they could control in an environment where their adversary held most of the cards. When their captors tried to isolated them to break their wills, the POWs used the tap code to encourage each other and make their isolation time productive, teaching each other subjects they knew intimately, including challenging materials that kept their minds occupied in isolation: higher math, foreign languages, and literary classics. When their captors broke up cell groups in an effort to disrupt unit cohesion, the POWs simply turned the tactic on their captors: “They cross-pollinated us,” said Orson Swindle. “We carried information with us to new cell blocks.”
The Servant Leader Lives the Credo
In a 1981 address to the graduating class of JohnCarrollUniversity, Stockdale encapsulated his POW leadership: “From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea. . . . it is a simple idea . . . an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. . . . You are your brother’s keeper.”
Stockdale practiced “servant leadership,” the belief that leaders should prioritize the needs of followers, long before it was popularized in business circles. He wrote: “A leader must remember he is responsible for his charges. He must tend his flock, not only cracking the whip but ‘washing their feet’ when they are in need of help” (Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Hoover Institution Press,StanfordUniversity, 1995). The servant approach frees followers to look out for each other and the greater good. It also models the credo the POWs adopted under Stockdale’s leadership: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
Footnote: This article is an excerpt of a forthcoming book, Leadership Lessons of the Hanoi Hilton, by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, with contributions by Dr. Jack London, chairman of CACI International, Inc. This book will be published by Naval Institute Press in 2012.
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