Operation Homecoming Part 6: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

Naval Proceedings Magazine – November 2009 Vol. 135/11/1,281

By Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland

The USS Stockdale (DDG-106) was commissioned in April 2009 in Santa Barbara, California. The man for whom the destroyer is named, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, left the U.S. Navy an inspiring legacy. During the Vietnam War, he was the senior ranking prisoner-of-war officer at the Hoa Lo Camp, Hanoi, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s principles can inspire any organization’s leaders.

Then-Commander Stockdale was a devotee of Epictetus, the eminent Greek philosopher. Stockdale had admired him since studying Stoic philosophy at Stanford University, from which he earned a master’s degree in International Relations and Marxist Theory in 1962. Epictetus’ Stoicism is the key to understanding Stockdale’s character, focus, and determination. His later writings and speeches frequently cited the Stoic philosopher as he sought to explain his success as the leader of the POW population in the Hanoi Hilton for more than seven years (1965-73).

From POWs to National Leaders

The Hanoi Hilton POWs were an unusual and remarkable group. Instead of returning home unraveled from years of abuse, isolation, and deprivation, about 80 percent of the 591 men that Operation Homecoming returned continued their military service. Many later became leaders in government, business, law, or academia. Twenty-four attained the rank of admiral or general; 18 have served (or are serving) in elected or appointed political positions at both the federal and state levels, including as senators, U.S. representatives, Federal Trade Commissioner, and the first U.S. Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Numerous others served in executive positions in corporate America and small business; many also continue to serve in their local communities for scouting, religious, and civic organizations. Eight received the Medal of Honor.

Despite being the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history, they brought home most of their comrades without major incidents of long-term mental illness. According to the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola, Florida, 96 percent of the Hanoi Hilton POWs were free of post-traumatic stress disorder. By comparison, a 1997 American Psychiatric Association report found more than half of 262 World War II and Korean War POWs studied had symptoms of lifetime PTSD.

The book Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later (by Taylor Kiland and Jamie Howren, Potomac Books, 2005) made use of 30 interviews as well as studies analyzing physical and mental health over the past 35 years. This research revealed key (and rare) leadership traits that surfaced in the Hanoi Hilton during the 1960s and early 1970s. Stockdale developed many specific leadership philosophies while in captivity, but in an overarching sense he understood the need for three conditions if the POWs were to succeed: 

  • Invisible leadership : Unit cohesion had to be maintained, as did adherence to principles and inspiration of the men—with no visual or verbal contact with subordinates. Military discipline and the code of conduct alone could not accomplish this. Communication strategies had to be developed to overcome the forced isolation. Stockdale’s leadership philosophy, as guided by Epictetus and the Stoics, can serve as a model for managing and influencing dispersed or virtual teams.
  • Strong cultural norms : The organizational culture had to be infectious; it had to spread on its own. Today we call this viral culture. More than 700 POWs in North Vietnam were separated by walls and spread across geographically dispersed prison camps. Stockdale needed to create and aim for consistent goals that could be sustained for years, if necessary.

He and the other POWs succeeded in maintaining operations under severely restrictive conditions for five to eight years. The cultural “norms” that they developed—unit cohesion, cultural consistency, focus in the face of physical and organizational barriers—can apply to business and organizational leadership anywhere.

  • Keeping the faith : The POWs needed to keep their perspective amid isolation, deprivation, and torture. In this regard, 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.

Wall Tap Society

Stockdale provided the leadership to inspire the men in his chain of command. Tactically, he used the tap code and other clandestine communications methods to achieve this. He conceived and conveyed his motivational messages even while in solitary confinement.

Stockdale’s genius emerged in startling ways, many of which are well documented. Jim Collins’ management book Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) covers some of Stockdale’s philosophies and techniques. The code that he and his fellow POWs created to communicate through prison walls was a clever method, but he also used the tool to establish his leadership position, exercise his authority, and inspire his men, many of whom he had never met.

He describes their collective organizational mission in his essay Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Bahavior (Hoover Institution on War Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, 1998).

We organized a clandestine society via our wall tap code a 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, intentionally call the bluff of our jailers and in a real sense force them to repeat the full ropes process to another submission. . . . At least half of those wonderful competitive fly-boys I found myself locked up with [said things like]: “We are in a spot like we’ve never been in before. But we deserve to maintain our self-respect, to have the feeling we are fighting back. We can’t refuse to do every degrading thing they demand of us, but it’s up to you, boss, to pick out the things we must all refuse to do unless and until they put us through the ropes again. . . . Give us the list; what are we to take torture for?”

Stockdale was faced with a Gordian Knot.

I put a lot of thought into what those first orders should be. . . . My mind-set was “we here under the gun are the experts . . . throw out the book and write your own.” My orders came out as easy-to-remember acronyms. The principal one was BACK-US: Don’t Bow in public; stay off the Air; admit no Crimes, never Kiss them goodbye. “US” could be interpreted as United States, but it really meant “Unity over Self” (pp. 14-15).

One for All

By carefully choosing a few simple principles that most POWs could embrace, Stockdale set the ground rules for a culture 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. Stockdale understood that he was forced to rely on others to live by the principles without being micromanaged.

Because of the harsh reality of his environment, this hands-off approach was a necessity. He knew he had to inspire, not dictate. Outside of society’s comforts and freedom, humility reigned and improvisation was the norm. Stockdale laid down a code that was firm enough to guide but flexible enough to allow for innovation. This was his brilliance.

Today, situational-leadership theory preaches what Stockdale practiced: leaders must change their style to fit the environment and their followers’ needs and skills. Any organization that articulates a purposeful goal in front of its members has started building a culture in which individuality can support solidarity, and in which personal desires (especially those of top management) take a backseat to the common good.

All for One

Stockdale frequently emphasized that every POW held different values and views on life, and that this diversity was an attribute. Each was his own man. Their memoirs Howard Rutledge’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies , Jeremiah Denton Jr.’s When Hell Was In Session , George Day’s Return with Honor , Robinson Risner’s Passing of the Night , James A. Mulligan’s Hanoi Commitment , Sam Johnson’s Captive Warriors , John Dramesi’s Code of Honor , and Larry Guarino’s POW’s Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi , and more show how differently they saw their plight, their own actions, and one another. The POWs were not a case study in conformity. Knowing this, Stockdale harnessed the diversity and gave them latitude. And in their common purpose, he also held out hope and solidarity.

Orson Swindle wrote in a 2005 issue of Proceedings :

One day we young officers were discussing some issue and finding no answers. I whispered down the passageway, “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 February 1973, almost six years later. We have been told we are going home. In the large courtyard area of Ho Loa prison [the Hanoi Hilton], the North Vietnamese are allowing one large cell of Americans at a time to wander over to the recently uncovered windows of other cells that surrounded the courtyard, permitting conversation. I see a slight man, terribly worn and tired looking with very grey hair limping over to my window. He looks up at me, smiles, and says, “Hi, I’m Jim Stockdale, who are you?” We literally had never seen each other before (“Always Leading and Always Will,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , August 2005, p. 65).

Instincts and Perspective

Most POWs cite training and the military’s Code of Conduct to explain their initial behavior after capture. They drew on the military bearing that had been drilled into them during boot camp or officer training, the rote adherence to procedures ingrained in pilots, and the austere “name, rank, serial number, date of birth” required by the Code. But for most, this rigor helped only in the immediate aftermath of capture.

Respect for and adherence to a well-defined chain of command also provided boundaries, rules, and a built-in operational procedure. However, a chain of command does not ingrain principles or inspire men. What neither it nor the code of conduct can easily explain is the consistency of the culture that evolved and was adopted by the highly dispersed and disparate individuals who were part of Stockdale’s wall-tap society for many years. They were members of the intensely mission-focused, unity-driven organization that Stockdale described: BACK-US.

In assembling his core leadership at the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale looked beyond rank. In Courage Under Fire , Stockdale advises: “When instincts and rank are out of phase, take the guy with the instincts.” He understood that attitude often accounts for an outcome more than do skills or background.

In more than 1,300 inspirational speeches, former POW Commander Paul Galanti has summarized his perspective on daily life after the Hanoi Hilton: “There’s no such thing as a bad day when you have a door knob on the inside of the door.”

Your Brother’s Keeper

Admiral Stockdale was able to keep the perspective of his charges uppermost in his mind during the grueling years in the Hanoi Hilton. He did it by deciding deliberately, with the conscious intent of a great leader, to shoulder the responsibility of using wisely whatever power accrued to his position as the senior ranking officer of the POWs.

Stockdale practiced “servant leadership,” the belief that leaders should prioritize the needs of followers, long before it was popularized in business circles. He wrote in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1995): “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.” The approach frees the flock to look out for each other and the greater good.

In a 1981 address to the graduating class of John Carroll University, 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.”


Mr. Fretwell, general manager of the Classical Network in New Jersey, holds an MBA in strategic leadership. He has widely studied Stockdale’s writings on leadership in the Hanoi Hilton.

Ms. Kiland, vice-president of marketing communications at the United States Navy Memorial, Washington, D.C., holds an MS in integrated marketing communications. A former naval officer, she is the author or co-author of several books.


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