Since he was a child, Lee Ellis wanted to be a pilot. When he went to university, the young American obtained a degree in History, but ended up specializing in the Air Force ROTC, a programme offered in educational institutions in the United States to train Air Force officers. When he graduated he received a commission, permission to enter the Air Force, and soon signed up for the pilot course.
A year later, he earned his wings and enlisted to defend the United States in the Vietnam War. It was summer in 1967, and Ellis had just finished his combat training when he was sent to the Asian country. His mission was to drop bombs from above to prevent the movement of Vietnamese tanks on land.
After 53 missions in enemy territory, Ellis’ plane was hit and blown up. He managed to survive thanks to his parachute, but he landed right in the middle of a field of Vietnamese militia and was captured. He was only 24 years old and was one of the youngest soldiers in combat.
During five and a half years, the Air Force colonel was held captive. “I call this the worst personal and professional nightmare ever. But, knowing my personality now, I see that I was destined to be a combatant and war pilot because I like challenges and I was in love with flying”, he says.
After the war ended, Ellis made a career as an airline pilot. Today, he is a leadership consultant and coach, as well as author of the books Leading with Honor and Leading Talents, Leading Teams, which have not yet been translated into Portuguese. He is in Brazil for the first time and will speak to executives in Belo Horizonte and in Recife. Ellis spoke with EXAME.com over the phone and talked about how the lessons he learned during the war can help run a business. These are some of those lessons:
1) Know yourself
“You have to see yourself in the mirror and realize that the person in front of you is the same that is inside your head”. According to Ellis, it is only by knowing yourself that you can deepen your character and face your own doubts and fears. “Our leaders were brave. They were tortured and continued to resist. We wanted to go home, but it had to be with honor”, he says.
2) Take responsibility
“You cannot give excuses, or blame another person. You cannot be a victim, you have to be accountable.”
3) Stay positive
“Henry Ford used to say that ‘whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are usually right’. But, in difficult times, it is also necessary to confront reality and face problems.”
4) Bounce back
In the business world as well as in the battlefield, people make mistakes and suffer losses. Therefore, Ellis says it's important that leaders learn to bounce back. "It's like golf. You make a bad play, but there will be another one right after. You must have your mind prepared for the next one. This is resilience. "
5) Build your culture
“When you enlist to serve, you have to follow a code of conduct. You are instructed to return home with honor, to do the right thing, to take care of your comrades. It is through culture that people know what do to when they are working alone.”
“I learned that in war you need to communicate more and with more intensity than what you think is necessary for your message to be clear and to reach where you want it to go.”
7) Develop personally
“On the battlefield, even without a TV, book, magazine or newspaper, we were always developing our mind. I learned various calculations on the field. My friend, who had a degree in Mathematics, would teach us and we would write on the floor with pieces of tile. I learned to speak French and Spanish with just my comrades.”
8) Take care of people
Leaders must know how to take care of their team. The challenge, according to Ellis, is to do this while delivering results, completing the mission. “You also must complete your work, achieve your goals. Many people don’t have a talent for the two things; one is natural, the other must be learned.”
9) Be creative
“When we were on the battlefield, there were not many ways to communicate with each other. So we made up a tapping code: we’d tap on the walls and were able to understand each other. We also came up with a hand code. Just by seeing someone’s hands, we were already communicating. To invent and create things all the time is very important for business and in any organization.”
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