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Military Leadership and Corporate Business Leadership – Similarities and Differences

(Editor’s Note: Recently, Lee spent a week in Brazil teaching hundreds of business owners and leaders about honorable leadership lessons. During some media appearances and interviews, he was asked the following questions and we wanted to share these valuable answers with you. Special thanks to Diário de Pernambuco Newspaper.)

Question – What is the main similarity between the battlefield and the corporate world? What lessons of the battlefield can be transferred to the corporate world?

Lee – “In the battlefield and corporate world, you have to solve problems and overcome challenges. Likewise, both situations have competitors who are trying to beat them, so both require information, strategies, plans, and good execution to win. The difference is the context and the fact that one is life and death of humans and the other is life and death of the company; but the idea of war is much more serious and so the two must never be confused. Of course these are significant differences, but there are certainly many correlations.

Mainly, you have a mission and people and obstacles to overcome. Both situations require leaders to influence their people to achieve results and meet their goals. In the end, that’s what leadership has to do in civilian life or in the military.”

Question – Is there any difference between the leadership of a general in war and the one of a leading business executive? Are the techniques used to motivate a soldier similar to the ones to motivate an employer?

Lee – “Yes there are some differences. For one, the pressure of accountability is different—at least on the surface. Shareholders, the markets, analysts and many outside people have their eyes on the company and its performance on a daily, continuous basis. Generals have less oversight and are trusted more to execute their assignments. They have spent their entire lives preparing for their battles and of course war is so much more unpredictable than business.”

Question – The military are often associated with rigid hierarchy models with low or no space for the participation of subordinates in decision-making. However, companies nowadays tend to open more space for collective participation, especially due to the advent of the Y Generation. With that in mind, what lessons can the military teach companies?

Lee – “Traditionally, the military has been very hierarchical, but that is changing.  Leaders recognize that the person on the spot often has better information and is in a better position to judge next steps. Also, in the advent of the all–volunteer force in US Forces has meant much more educated and better screened troops. They are more capable than ever before and even though they are very hierarchical during wartime, they operate quite flat. The U.S. military tends to operate by centralized control and decentralized execution.

The one thing the modern thinking companies need to learn from the military is the principle of accountability. You must have one person in charge and responsible, or you really have no one responsible. Responsibility is one of the three legs of the stool of accountability. Without responsibility, you can’t really hold someone accountable and at the end of the day. Someone must be accountable and have ownership for successful execution.”

Question – How did the experience in captivity influence your formation as a leader?

Lee – “In the POW camps our leaders suffered first and most often and the most torture and hardship. They were committed to doing their duty in spite of the heavy costs. They leaned into their doubts and fears to do the right thing and that was a powerful example. We wanted to be like them, so they raised our level of courage and commitment by their example. My goal became to do the right thing regardless of my fears or the risks associated with the situation. That was the most important influence on me and that helped me catch up with my peers who had gained a six year advantage in leadership experience on me while I was away.

Of course there were many other areas, too. For example, I saw that even the strongest leaders usually got input from their people before making decisions. Also, they did not hesitate to consult with other leaders when they had doubts about their ability to be objective in those very difficult situations.”

Question – You’ve mentioned in Leading with Honor that one of the factors that helped you survive the captivity for some many years was the motivation of all commanders in being with you. Could you describe the captivity ambient and comment on how the commanders were able to motivate the troops held captive? 

Lee – “There was a war in the camps as the enemy tried to isolate us, break our resistance, remove our leaders and ultimately get us to join them in making anti-war propaganda. For the first three years I was there (first five years for many of the older leaders), there was torture going on somewhere in the camps. The food was poor and there was no medical care. We were hot in summer and cold in winter. We were locked in dark cells that were like medieval dungeons. Yet we stayed positive and worked as a team.

Our leaders had to lead covertly, but because of our resistance, our captors knew they were leading and so they would pull them out and break them. But the break was always temporary, as they bounced back to resist and lead again. Their leadership will go down in history as one of the greatest examples of courageous servant leadership the world has ever seen. That’s why I wrote the book Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton—to tell that story and show how the lessons we learned there could help every business and every family for that matter.”

Question – You’ve also mentioned in leading with Honor the role that values such as honor and courage play in leadership. However, such values do not have such impact on current society as before. How can companies manage to recover them in order to improve management tools?

Lee – “It’s mainly by example and walking the talk. People are watching the leaders, and a good leader can be a powerful influencer. I believe people are looking, desperately wanting to see honorable leaders. Honorable leaders are secure in themselves; and because they have good values and courage, they can do the right thing even when it’s hard and when they suffer for it.”

Question – In developing countries such as Brazil, India, and Russia, corruption and dishonesty are unfortunately often present in the private, public and civilian spheres. Is it possible to have ethics and work normally in companies operating in such places?

Lee – “I would think it would be much more difficult, but it’s still possible. It’s doing the hard thing, and it will be painful and cause suffering.  But if enough honest people band together and encourage and support each other, I think it’s possible. And this small group could change the culture of the country over time. We need courageous leaders with character and integrity to stand up and lead this movement. In the end, everyone will be blessed.”

Question – Broadly speaking, what are the main challenges companies face in the field of people management?

Lee – “It is almost always finding a balance between mission and people (or you call it results and relationships). You have to achieve results to accomplish the mission, but also have to take care of the people and demonstrate that you care about them or you will only be able to lead by fear. Leading by fear is the worst kind of leadership because it denies our basic needs for safety and it is very inefficient.

Ultimately if people have a choice, they will leave a hostile workplace and the good people will leave first. So finding a balance of doing both results and relationships is important. Ironically by personality, 80% of all people are tilted toward one or the other so they are good at one and not naturally good at the other. So they have to learn to do some skills in the one that isn’t natural for them. Even those who are somewhat balanced will normally go to Results under stress because that gets highlighted and rewarded first and most often in the company.”

Question – Does any of the 14 leadership principles you propose stand out?

Lee – “Leaders must have the courage to do the right thing. Courage undergirds a number of other attributes like being authentic, having integrity and strong character, and resilience. But courage is the key; for without it, you will fail at the point of greatest need. One of my leaders told me once, ‘Lee, anyone can steer the ship through the calm waters; the real captains take it through the storms.’ He was so right; facing the stormy seas of leadership takes courage, competence and confidence. They are all important, but without courage, it won’t happen consistently.

Most leaders never have to work in life and death scenarios every day, but there are painful consequences for all leaders when making bad decisions in the context of their work. Without practical examples and guiding principles for being a great leader, you’re like a ship without a rudder. For me, the guiding principle is leaning into the pain of our fears to do what we know is right. That always wins in the long run.”

Question – What is the main message you will transmit in your talk next week in Recife?  

Lee – “Great leaders stand for strong values and build a strong culture around them. The three critical components of leadership are Character, Competence, and Courage –

  • Character is the foundation.
  • Competence is about your skills of leadership and execution.
  • Courage is energy that keeps you doing the right thing, even when it’s feels scary or difficult.”

Please share your thoughts and wisdom on this topic. How do you compare the leadership styles and strategies between the military culture and corporate business culture?


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Related Articles:

Results vs. Relationships – Finding Your Balance on the Leadership Seesaw

Wounded Warriors® Feature – “Lessons from Vietnam for Today’s Warrior”


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Authentic Leadership

by Phil Eastman

(Editor’s Note: From time to time, we want to feature blog articles from other authors that highlight a particular issue related to leadership and personal development.)

I was once told that the secret to any book’s success is its title. Unfortunately a book title does not always properly portray what is inside. The title can be clever and catchy while the text inside is dull and disappointing. To illustrate, several years ago Mahan Khalsa wrote a solid book on solution selling with one of the best titles I have ever heard, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. What a great title with great potential for sales. That title is also a great opening line for a discussion of authentic leadership.

The pursuit of leadership authenticity is like a book with a provocative title. Too many leaders have been ingrained with the myths that results are all that matter. In fact, results do matter, but what matters more is the means by which a leader achieves those results. Interestingly results are better when leaders are authentic in their approach. The challenge is to make sure your road to authenticity winds through your character.

“The challenge is to make sure your road to authenticity winds through your character.”

There are three major barriers to leadership authenticity –

1. First, we live in an image saturated world with few opportunities to see, recognize and celebrate authentic leadership. Successful leadership portrayed in most media outlets are usually centered on the deal and winning above being true to oneself and others. The television show, The Apprentice, is a great example. On the show, teams work together toward a common goal while competing against another group doing the same. When the losing team finds itself in the boardroom making a desperate plea for remaining on the show, the people seem willing to resort to any behavior to keep from being fired. Very few have taken responsibility for their own actions and often times those who do are the ones who get fired. We don’t have a productive manner or model for a discussion of character.

2. Therein lies the second challenge. When character discussions arise, they are almost always directed negatively rather than focused on the positive. In other words, character is more visible when things are fractured rather than intact. We need a model for the positive proactive discussion of character and its connection to leadership.

3. The third and possibly most challenging element in the pursuit of leadership authenticity is solid and realistic self-awareness. Introspection about your character and leadership style is very difficult and yet is the master key to your development.

“All that said, self-awareness is the key to authentic leadership, and authentic leadership is critical to your organization’s success.”

All that said, self-awareness is the key to authentic leadership, and authentic leadership is critical to your organization’s success. But what is authentic leadership, and what does it look like?  An authentic leader is one that courageously and wisely moves a group of people, by doing what is right, to an end that is in the long-term best interest of everyone.

Character then becomes the pivotal aspect of authentic leadership. In other words, a leader’s character defines and drives their actions, and as such, if you want certain leadership behaviors, we must tackle the shaping of your character. That must however be done consciously rather than by letting your character be formed by the unconscious flow of media driven images.

To develop authentic leadership, one must –

1. Find and use a character model that appeals to you.
2. Determine what behaviors you will adopt and build into your leadership based on that character model.
3. Practice your new leadership behaviors in the work you currently do.
4. Share with your team what you are working toward (they will appreciate the authenticity).

Think of authentic leadership as matching the book’s content with its title. The compelling, clever, descriptive exterior representation must match the text inside so that neither the title nor the text disappoint. Remember, let’s get real or let’s not play.


Phil Eastman is the Principle Advisor at Leadership Advisors Group. Specializing in strategic planning, leadership development, and leading change.

Related Articles:

How to Avoid Two Dangerous Traps in Leadership—Listen and Engage

Why is Job Competence Given a Higher Priority than Foundational, Moral Character and Integrity?



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Why is Leadership Development Important? Lee Ellis Shares His Unique Thoughts, and Please Share Yours

In this short interview, human performance consultant, Lee Ellis, shares why he thinks leadership development is important.

One phrase he mentions is, “Leaders must change and grow, they cannot do things the same way forever. If you want your team or organization to grow, you have to be willing to change and evolve as a leader.”

Do you agree? Tell us what you think…


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Company Culture Shapes the Way Your Business Operates

By Caitlin Florence

(Editor’s Note: From time to time, we want to feature blog articles from other authors that highlight a particular issue related to leadership and personal development.)

Company culture and vulnerability were discussed in-depth at this year’s Inc. Leadership Forum. Here are some conference takeaways from Caitlin Florance, Marketing Partnership Manager for Hiscox Small Business.

I had the privilege of attending the Inc. Leadership Forum in San Diego and gained some valuable insight on how to be a successful leader and business owner. Two major themes at the conference were company culture and the power of vulnerability.

Company culture is an important aspect of any business, big or small. All business owners and partners need to agree on one culture that will shape the way their business operates. If you are a business owner, it is imperative that you “walk your talk”. If you are passionate about your company and the success of your business and you practice what you preach, your employees will take notice and follow and respect you as a business owner and as a person. This is the key to a successful business culture. Norm Brodsky, entrepreneur, columnist and co-author of “Street Smarts: An All Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs,” spoke at the forum and was asked a question from the audience, “How do you measure your company culture?” He simply replied by asking two questions back, “Do your employees stay with the company? Do you have a high customer retention rate?” Happy employees make happy customers – it all starts with the company culture and hiring the right employees to fit that culture.

The second topic, the power of vulnerability left a lasting impression on me – Success is how you go from failure to failure. At the forum, research professor and author, Brene Brown led a discussion on how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way people live, love, parent and lead. Vulnerability is seen by many as a sign of weakness – being fearful, timid and shameful. People protect themselves from being vulnerable by putting up a wall, a mask, a “game face.” Though this wall may protect us from emotions that we are scared to feel or don’t want to feel, it also prevents us from being creative, innovative, authentic, accountable, and adaptable to change… all attributes that a successful business leader needs. Dr. Brown closed her session with a quote, “Courage and comfort do not coexist. If you get into the arena, you will get your ass kicked. So, you need to ask yourself, what is worth doing even if you fail?”

I leave you with a final statement – Start a business you’re passionate about. Establish a culture that you can live by day in and day out. Hire people that fit your culture. Most importantly, be prepared to fail a few times, but remember that success is not measured by your failures, it is measured by how you overcome those failures.

Caitlin Florance is the Marketing Partnerships Manager for Hiscox Small Business

Related Articles:

How to Avoid Two Dangerous Traps in Leadership—Listen and Engage

Leaders Dig Deep and Treasure Their Trials: A How-To Article


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A Tribute to Major LeRoy Homer, USAF Veteran and Co-Pilot of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001

Today, Lee Ellis and FreedomStar Media remembers Major LeRoy Homer. A USAF veteran, Major Homer was the co-pilot on United Airlines Flight 93 when it was hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Some of his military accomplishments included flying missions in support of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991, Rwanda in 1994, and Haiti in 1994.

Read more about LeRoy’s life at this link – Veterans Tribute Page

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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Leadership, Military, Seasonal


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Lee Answers this Life and Leadership Question – “If I had the choice whether to get shot down in Vietnam and be a POW, what would you choose?” Hear His Answer in This Interview

Lee was honored to be a recent guest on Anything is Possible radio. The host, Jack Krasula, has also featured guests such as Roger Staubach, John McCain, Lou Holtz, and others.

In the long-form interview, Lee shares more in-depth details about life, and clear advice on finding your passion and purpose as a leader.

What was the best piece of advice that you received from this interview? Please listen and share your comments –


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We Need Your Opinion on the State of Leadership – 2-Minute Survey

Hello! Would you take 2 minutes and answer a short survey?

Lee Ellis’ organization, Leadership Freedom LLC, would like to have your valued opinion and comments on the current state of leadership in our nation.

The results will be used in future meetings, events, and communication to reinforce the need for honorable leadership in our society. We will share the results in a future post – thanks again for your willingness to participate!

Click this link to get started – Take the Survey


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