Interview with Lee Ellis, a retired Air Force colonel, discussed how his experience as a POW influenced his approach to risk-taking and decision-making in business. Lee gave advice to small business owners on how to succeed.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Yes, I grew up on a farm in North Georgia. Most of the farms in North Georgia are red dirt and not real good farms, but we didn't know that back then. I would look up and overhead and see those airplanes back during the Korean War. And I thought, yeah, that's me. I think that's where I belong. So actually within five year period, I went from being a kid in high school plow in a mule to flying a super sonic jet.
I went to University of Georgia, got in ROTC and I was a distinguished graduate. And then 53 weeks later, I got my wings as an Air Force pilot. And then I went to Southern California and checked out into F4 Fighter Bomber, which was the latest newest Air Force fighter that we had at the time.
But my orders had said when I graduated from flight school, and about half in my class said this, F4 pipeline Southeast Asia, which meant as quick as we could get combat qualified, we were headed to the war. So I got my wings in August 66, went to survival school, went through combat training, went to the Philippines, went to jungle survival. And then from there, right to Vietnam to the war.
On my 53rd mission over the north, my airplane blew up over the target and I guess we had a lot of ant aircraft artillery. It blew up and I had to take an eyeline let down. That's what we call a parachute.
I did my parachute landing fall and they captured me.
Can you tell me what lessons you've learned from that experience and how it may have helped you in your business endeavors?
Just to summarize the POW experience, the first several years were very, very hard. There was torture going on in the camps at all times and the rules were very strong. If you got caught communicating with another cell, they tried to isolate us so that we couldn't be teamwork. You know, they wanted to make you be alone.
I went to a cell with a six and a half by seven foot cell about the size of a men's bathroom and a gas station, you know, and was three other guys for the next eight months. And then I moved out to another camp and was there two years and with four guys. And in those early years, there was always some torture going on.
After being there two and a half years, they stopped the torture. We went more to living, just living day to day. You have to stay mentally resilient, you have to be connected with others. It's very difficult, much more difficult when you're alone. And when you have people that can encourage you and say, man, I'm proud of you. You, you, you're tougher than I am. And you're with people that have been there longer than you have. You know, it's hard to feel sorry for yourself when the guy over there next to you has been there a year longer than you have. And he's smiling and telling funny stories. You got to hang in there. So I think being resilient was very important and keeping a positive attitude was so important.
We just have to believe and you bounce back from setbacks. You bounce back, they torture you and you finally agree to do something and you do, you agree to do something they want.
Can you tell us how did you grew your experiences into a business?
When I first retired from the Air Force, I made a decision. I had a great career going, but I was a full colonel. I've been a full colonel for several years. I made a decision because my parents were getting older and the University of Georgia ROTC Air Force came open that I would go back to the University of Georgia and be on the faculty and run to ROTC because my parents lived 10 miles from Athens, Georgia.
So that's what I did and it turned out to be a great assignment. I spent three and a half years there and then retired. But working with those college students, I realized, well, I had to get a master's degree to go back to the University of Georgia and be on the faculty as an instructor.
You had to have a master's degree. So I went to night school as a colonel, running a large leadership school in Montgomery, Alabama.
I started coaching leaders, this was 1995, I retired in 1990 from the Air Force. Yes. So around 1995, 1996, I started doing that. Ever since 1998, I've had my own leadership consulting and training business. And this Wednesday, I'll be in San Antonio doing a half-day workshop for the 12th maintenance group in the Air Force at Randolph Air Force Base. I'm still doing leadership training, team development, coaching, and writing books and having fun.
As the CEO of your own company, what advice would you give to other small business owners looking to grow and succeed?
I think the most important thing is to, first of all, you have to be connected with people that can kind of network you around.
That's been very important. I think whether you're looking for a job or you have your own business or whatever, you got to be networked to people that need you and will help you. That's step one, step two, but especially for a small business launching, having friends in larger businesses and areas that can use your service, get you going. Secondly, is you got to hire people that have talents you don't have, people that just kind of irritate you, but they can make you look good.
I've been working with assessing human behavior for 30 something years now. And I have been very successful in the Air Force and in my business because of people that have talents I don't have. And they do things well that I need done well that I don't do well. And so having those people around and appreciating them and letting them know how valuable they are and letting them use their talents.
And I say, look, here's the deal. I think you know more about this than I do and I'm gonna trust you in it but sometimes I'm gonna challenge you on it because I don't yet understand it. And ultimately it has to be my decision. So don't feel bad when I stop and say, why are we doing that?
Let's don't do it that way. When you've told me why we ought to do it and if I make the decision to go a different way than what you want. It's not your problem. I'll be the one that causes us to fail. I own it. You've done your very best to tell me, that's probably not a good idea, but if I say yes, I wanna do it, then it's my failure if it fails.
If you look back over your very wonderful career, what accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
You know, I think it all has to come back to your purpose in life. See, in the POW camps, we had a purpose and a mission. Our purpose was to be a good airman soldier, sailor's Marines. We're gonna be good soldiers and to serve our country. That was our purpose. And our mission was to resist the mission. enemy and follow our code of conduct and return with honor.
So know your purpose. What are you there for? What do you want to do? My purpose has really been for the last 25 years, 30 years, to help people understand themselves to perform more effectively and to help others to understand how to help others grow, to help themselves grow, and to help others grow to be more effective in the workplace.
And ultimately, most of that stuff will carry at home too.
Oh, I feel that my purpose in writing books, I would have never written a book. If you told my teachers I'd written a chapter in a book, they would laugh at you. I've written six books. P.O.W. and learned to really focus during that time. But the books have been written about leadership and knowing yourself and understanding of people, how to be tough and how to be kind. Most of all, how to have good character too.
How long have you been a member of CEO Netweavers?
I joined around 2008 or 2009. So, CEO Netweavers was fairly new back then. It's a couple of years old, I think.
What do you think has been the biggest benefit of being a member for you?
I've just enjoyed being in the group and also knowing that we were doing things for the community to mentor and help younger businesspeople.
I've been on several events where we go in and provide free mentoring to a business. But for me personally, it was just great to have a connection with CEOs and CEO executive level leaders that had a lot of business experience and maturity. We could chat and visit and also good speakers, you know, I got to know Ralph De la Vega when he came and spoke there in Atlanta because he was head of a Bell, South mobility.
AT&T mobility and I got to know Ralph there and several of the speakers that came in that have Ralph has endorsed my 2016 book Engaged with Honor, a leadership book.
The other part of CEO Netweavers was you don't meet people for your benefit. You meet them and try to help them connect with somebody else. Chuck Marino introduced me to his brother out in California who was on the board for National Association of Corporate Directors, NACD.
So, Ed Marino, his brother in Southern California, who was head of NACD out there, got me to speak at NACD in Washington DC at their headquarters. I spoke to the whole convention one year at NACD. So, people in CEO Netweavers have always helped me to make connections. I've tried to help them, my friends there, to make connections too. So I think helping people make those business connections, introducing them has always been a good thing.
Your story is amazing thanks for sharing it with us.