The Importance of a Compelling Central Idea
In the early stages of the Vietnam War, U.S. Navy pilot James Bond Stockdale was shot down over enemy territory and captured. For more than seven years, from 1965 to 1973, Commander (later Admiral) Stockdale was the highest-ranking prisoner- of- war (POW) at the Hoa Lo Camp, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton, in the capital city of North Vietnam. He endured torture and deprivation beyond imagination. But James Stockdale also valiantly led his fellow POWs throughout their shared ordeal with great imagination and courage, helping the vast majority of them to survive their time in captivity physically and psychologically intact.
Stockdale used a variety of leadership techniques but, above all else, his team prevailed because he provided them with a common purpose.
Stockdale summarized the essence of his leadership during the time at Hoa Lo: "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."
Unity Over Self
This powerful concept that the well-being of the whole team was more important than the plight of any one individual- described by Stockdale as "Unity over Self"- was the compelling common purpose that allowed a disparate group of individuals to remain a cohesive team in an incredibly challenging environment.
Stockdale confronted mighty obstacles in leading his fellow prisoners. First, the men were physically separated, with no ability to communicate directly. Stockdale developed a communication strategy involving a wall tap code and other means of secret messaging which allowed him to continually lead and encourage his team despite their isolation.
Next, the team consisted of hundreds of individuals from very diverse backgrounds and experiences. Stockdale recognized and harnessed their diversity by giving them latitude.
Finally, Stockdale's men faced loneliness, deprivation and torture on a daily basis. Stockdale wrote later, "We organized a clandestine society…. with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes. [This explains how we could].… order each other into more torture…. refuse to comply with specific demands, [and] intentionally call the bluff of our jailers.…"
Stockdale succeeded in creating a cohesive culture with ironclad and widely-known rules which perpetuated itself and provided motivation and discipline to its members even under the most difficult of circumstances.
Of the 591 Hanoi Hilton POWs who returned safely, almost 80 percent remained in the military, with 24 of them advancing to the rank of general or admiral. A significant number of the returnees became leaders in business, law, government or politics. Fully 96 percent of the former prisoners were free of any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. James Stockdale's brilliant and inspirational leadership went a long way toward ensuring that the men in his charge would return home to pursue healthy, productive lives.
Relevance to Today's Business Leaders
Why is this amazing story relevant to today's business leaders? Wilson Learning conducted a survey in 2006 of 25,000 workers in finance and high tech who asserted overwhelmingly that they needed a leader who could "convey clearly what the work unit is trying to do." This is an incredibly simple proposition, but many leaders fail the test.
Have you as a leader provided your team with a common purpose? Do team members understand and can they articulate that purpose? What is the central idea that drives your organization forward, through good times and bad? If you are fuzzy on these answers, you can bet your team is confused as well. Now is the time to step up and, with confidence and conviction, "convey clearly what the work unit is trying to do."