In his recent editorial in the Washington Post, Naval Academy professor Dr. Bruce Fleming asserts that leadership is the “snake oil” for today’s military and that organizations — civilian and military alike — are infatuated with it as the antidote to all organizations’ problems. He has a point. Leadership training as the single answer rings hollow. As he also suggests, teaching leadership may be a futile exercise. But he is wrong to say that “there’s no proof [leadership] has any benefit at all — or for that matter, even exists.”
On the contrary, good leadership and the powerful culture that it engenders can make the difference between a solvent company and a profitable one. Jim Collins’ Good to Great book research found virtually all the companies that outperformed their industry peers in the marketplace for sustained periods of time had what Collins called “Level Five” leaders, executives who exhibit a rare combination of deep personal humility and intense resolve.
In a military organization, leadership can make the difference between life and death. Forty years ago, 591 prisoners of war returned home alive from North Vietnam after the longest period of wartime incarceration in our nation’s history. They remained unified in their resistance to their captors and unified in their adherence to a mission: Return with Honor. To this day, they have one of the lowest rates of PTSD of any group of combat veterans: a lifetime average of 4%. And their leaders, especially Vice Adm. James Stockdale, made the unquestionable difference.
Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former POW, recalls one hot summer night in 1967 when he shared a cell with Stockdale, the senior ranking officer of the group. They were trying to communicate with recent “shoot-downs,” other aviators whose planes had been recently shot down. As Mr. Johnson describes it, “They were scared, for good reason. We wanted to talk to them and make them know that there were other Americans around.” The communications system was the POWs’ lifeblood, but the risks for using it were high. When possible, the POWs assigned at least one man the task of “clearing,” or alerting other POWs of a guard’s impending approach.
“Jim would get on the floor and ‘clear’ and I’d get up on the concrete bunk and talk to [a new guy] down the back side out of the window. We happened to be on the back of the jail. We would tell him essentially how the cow eats the cabbage [how the things worked in the prison system] and, that ‘you’re going to be all right.’”
On this particular night, they were finally caught. “The guard and an officer came charging down the hall. Jim barely got up before the door opened. I’m standing there and the door pops open and here’s this little North Vietnamese guy wearing Air Force 2nd Lieutenant bars. Turns out he was a camp commander. He wasn’t a lieutenant – he was masquerading as one. Jim hauled off and decked him right there. Just knocked him down. And, I thought, ‘…We’re in deep serious now.’ And we were.”
Punishment was immediate and harsh. Mr. Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks in a small cell with the windows boarded up. He quietly notes, “Jim got the worst punishment.”
Why did Stockdale intentionally assault the camp commander by punching him in the face? An irrational outburst of anger or violence was completely out of character for this Stanford-educated philosopher. He was noted around the camp for his towering intellect, not his emotional volatility.
Mr. Johnson pauses for a long moment before answering that question, choosing his words deliberately. “Frankly, I think he was protecting me. You know, that’s a characteristic of leadership.”
Stockdale exhibited several noteworthy characteristics of a great leader that day. He stayed focused on the POWs’ agreed-upon mission, he chose his battle carefully and — without fear of personal consequences — he sacrificed himself to protect those under him. He asked nothing of his followers that he would not first deliver himself. When pain was on the agenda, Stockdale didn’t delegate. He led.
Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland are the co-authors of the new book, Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.