We often hear of the value of 20/20 hindsight when looking back at the past.
And for me personally, this latest chapter in my life has provided much clarity on what determination and consistent effort can do for getting better results.
In facing the second half of 2012, I believe there is great benefit and encouragement to be gained by looking back—and with my new book, LEADING with HONOR: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton out, I’ll focus this blog entry on a pressure-tested lesson learned from the POW camps of North Vietnam in something I call:
1,955 Days—Improving My German and Chin-ups One Day at a Time
In the early years of our POW captivity, any form of communication was forbidden between prisoners. Consequently, communicating quietly and covertly without getting caught was slow and tedious, taking much of our day.
Still, there were down times when we had to find ways to “escape” the dreary and depressing environment of a gray, smelly, dark dungeon, isolated from family, ten-thousand miles from home.
Making Time Count
As a goal-oriented “action” person locked in a 6.5’ x 7’ cell, I found myself driven to find ways to make the time count.
Like most of my compatriots, achievement was a high value.
It was frustrating for us because we were cut off from the normal outlets for entertainment and recreation, and especially the resources for personal growth and intellectual stimulation. We had no books or magazines and certainly no television.
Watching geckos stalk and capture bugs was a highlight.
Out of necessity and boredom, we learned the value of committing to doing something—almost anything that would give a sense of meaning.
Usually this meant a daily routine—a regimen that over time would yield progress and growth.
Get With the Program
Some guys like cellmate Glenn Myers called it a “program.” He had the most demanding exercise program I had ever seen and he stuck to it religiously. I had “projects,” and though I’m usually a better starter than finisher. I wasn’t used to sticking with things for the duration.
However, the unyielding harsh routine of that highly structured environment helped me stick with those projects for an entire year and sometimes two or more.
After a while I realized that the value of that regular commitment was something remarkable. it was truly awesome!
In hindsight, learning and implementing this “stick-to-itiveness” has contributed to success in every aspect of my life.
Changing Bad Habits
I was a horrible language student in college because I had poor study habits and was not motivated to learn a language. As a POW, I took on the project of learning three languages simultaneously with a commitment that was driven by one thing:
Never let a day go by without getting better.
At the time, it was really about having something meaningful to do. I had goals and a small group of three guys that I worked with regularly. At the end of two years, I was near fluent in Spanish and French and had a working vocabulary in German. During that same time, we memorized several long poems and the names of more than 200 POWs.
We also learned many other things including the basics of differential calculus.
Like my friend Glenn, most of us adopted physical exercise regimens. One day, shortly after moving into the Son Tay camp, we noticed a 2×6 crossbeam in the washhouse that was just the right height for doing a chin-up.
The first time I tried it I was so weak that all I could do was four. It was pitiful.
Over the next two years, I practiced every time we had an unsupervised moment in the washhouse. My strength and form improved slowly to the point I could do thirty chin-ups and fifteen pull-ups, more than doubling anything I had ever been able to do in my life.
The lesson for me was that we can do so much more than we imagine if we make a consistent effort. Those years of being committed to various regimens made me a believer in the power of maintaining regular practice over time.
At a time when I was “doing time” I wanted to make time count.
When I was captured, I could never have imagined—let alone accepted—that I would be there 1,955 days. Fortunately, I learned how to stay on a regimen until the goal is met.
Leadership & Personal Growth
This is the powerful key to leadership and personal growth. As an executive coach, my goal is to get the coachee to practice new, more effective behaviors until they become habit.
For example, active-listening is often a challenge for many leaders.
It’s difficult because they have to give up control of the agenda and set aside their opinions about an issue long enough to hear the other person’s view and then respond with respectful appreciation. This kind of practice is painful and unnatural, yet when it becomes a habit, can yield powerful influence with others.
And just as important, the leader usually learns some things he or she needs to know. It’s also important to develop your people with growth goals, and it’s one of the key principles that I learned in my POW experience.
One of my clients realized she needed to coach one of her direct reports (I’ll call Bill) on his way of responding to others. He took it well and began to practice better behaviors of social intelligence.
The results impacted a wide range of peers and associates who were excited and uplifted by their interactions with the “new” Bill.
The changes made over a year by this one individual significantly energized the team.
This year is a leap year, so we have 366 days to practice our regimen. When you take on your self-development as a “project,” will you choose to steadily plug away one day at a time? Will you declare your commitment and share your personal stories of victory and progress in your personal growth? Your hindsight could be an inspiration for the rest of us this year.
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Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
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His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.
Image Sources: farm1.static.flickr.com, images.travelpod.com