“You control what you can and refuse to invest energy in what you can’t control… How good are you at letting go of all that and then returning to what you can control?” Dr. Nathaniel Zinsser
I just finished one of those books you can’t put down. While researching for ICTG's Community Blog, I started looking for new perspectives on resilience. One of the first books I came across was Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland (all quotes in this article are from the book, unless otherwise stated). If you haven’t studied the Vietnam War, you might think this book is about a hotel; in stark contrast, the Hanoi Hilton was the American nickname for the Hỏa Lò Prison, a brutal Prisoner of War (POW) camp. You also might not know that many of the hundreds of POWs who spent time at the Hanoi Hilton left the camp “physically and mentally intact,” and went on to have incredibly successful careers and lives - Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Medal of Honor recipient and Ross Perot’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1992, Texas Congressman Sam Johnson and the late Senator John McCain among them. This trend was noticed early on by the Department of Defense, who went on to study these POW soldiers over the course of decades. Fretwell and Baldwin Kiland took those studies, identified six characteristics that stand out as hallmark traits of resilience, and shared how they can apply to teams and communities.
1. The Mission Leads
Resilient groups maintain their focus on the mission. A clear, defined mission will guide a team or community towards a goal, even when the leader and followers change. The Hanoi Hilton POWs had a simple mission: “Return with Honor.” The Hanoi Hilton POWs faced extreme psychological warfare and were aggressively questioned for military intelligence. Where many POWs in other wars had felt as though they were no longer an active part of the fight, the Hanoi Hilton POWs maintained their mission through purposefully feeding their captors incorrect information. In doing so, they continued to serve their Country and mission, even when the theater changed from a battlefield to an interrogation room. This sense of purpose and clarity of mission gave the POWs an ultimate goal to keep striving for.
2. You Are Your Brother’s Keeper
Servant leadership is one of my favorite approaches to leadership. Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 “The Servant as Leader” essay describes it as such: “The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” The POW community at the Hanoi Hilton frequently utilized this form of leadership to help each other recover from the torture and abuse they experienced. Additionally, instead of hiding their experiences, the leaders within the POW community shared their pain and were honest and open about what they were going through. The vulnerability they demonstrated to those they led strengthened the bond among the POWs. Academics have looked at the characteristics exhibited by the POW Servant Leaders and found they were excellent at five essential traits of psychological first aid: safety, optimism, calm, connectedness, and efficacy. The bottom line: when we are all looking out for each other, we can get through the hard times.
3. Think Big and Basically
Teams work best when the goal and the rules of the road are clear. The POW’s rules of the road were focused on minimizing the ability of their captors to use them as propaganda and supporting their fellow captives. POWs were given the latitude to interpret how to follow these rules individually, which allowed them to balance the amount of abuse they received and how much they were willing to resist. “Personal ownership and responsibility became the cultural norm” within the Hanoi Hilton because the leadership came through inspiration, not dictation. POWs knew what was expected of them at a high level, and were given the ability to decide how they were going to meet those expectations.
4. Don’t Piss Off the Turnkey
High-performing teams focus on what they can control rather than what they cannot. For the POWs, this meant protecting each other whenever possible, controlling their attitude, staying mentally and physically fit, occupying their time with whatever activities they could, managing their energy. It would have been easy for the POWs to focus their attention on everything they didn’t have, or all of the moments they were missing back home; instead, they kept their attention on ensuring the safety and health of the group.
5. Keep the Faith
Researchers who have studied the Hanoi Hilton POWs have identified a number of personality traits that impacted their resilience, but the strongest indicator of their ability to bounce back from their traumatic experiences was optimism. “Simply put, optimists look at bad events as temporary, local, and external; pessimists look at bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal.” While some people are natural-born optimists, it can also be taught. The Navy SEALs mentally train their recruits towards optimism by focusing on goal setting, arousal control, visualization, and self-talk. The POWs exhibited exceptional mental focus, fortitude, and willpower; that mental edge proved to be one of the reasons the Hanoi Hilton POWs were so resilient.
6. The Power of We
Finally, the Hanoi Hilton POWs never forgot that they were “in this” together. Rather than one person leading a resistance, they all worked together - if their captors were to punish someone, they would have to punish all rather than just one. However, even as the war came closer to the end and restrictions on the captives eased, the POWs never lost sight of their mission; instead, they held closer to it. Even when tempted with early release (the refusal of which was one of the basic tenents of the “Return with Honor” mission), POWs at the Hanoi Hilton refused unless they were released in the order in which they were shot down. Instead of accepting early release, the POWs respected the order in which they had agreed they would be released and even refused orders to return out of order. For them, they had operated for so long towards their common mission that even the strongest temptations were not enough to break their focus on the welfare of the group.
Instead of crumbling under the oppressive circumstances, these servicemen grew together, supported one another, and accomplished their mission of returning with honor. The lessons from the community developed in the camp are an exemplary testament of the capacity for human resilience and a roadmap for leaders looking to increase the strength and capability of their communities. All leaders who want to foster resilience should study the 6 characteristics above, and consider how each might apply to their teams. Use the following six prompts to begin:
Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland
Expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and whole-community care.