Coach’s Corner Blog

3 Survival Lessons from a Vietnam Prisoner of War

January 13, 2015 by 1 Comment

Fighter Pilot

You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor. – Aristotle

A client of mine for many years is on a prominent financial advisory team that manages in excess of $7 billion for its clients.

One member of the team recently announced his pending retirement and gave a presentation at their annual meeting. This gentleman’s name is Jerry and he shared his experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 5 and 1/2 years.

Jerry is a very bright, friendly and positive fellow and he and I had chatted briefly in the past about the connection he developed with Senator John McCain, a fellow prisoner. I never felt comfortable about delving too deeply into his experiences, but Jerry’s presentation, which he gives to various groups, was quite enlightening and very instructive for us all.

I won’t go into the details of Jerry’s capture and the torture that he endured, but I do want to share with you one thing that was said to him shortly after his arrival in one of the several prisons he was in where he endured 5 and 1/2 years of abuse, deprivation and hardship.

Another other prisoner impressed upon Jerry that the last thing he ought to do was feel sorry for himself. All the other fellows in the prison were in the same situation, but more importantly, feeling sorry for himself would only result in one thing – his death.

We have all had our difficult challenges in business and life, but few rise to the level of life and death!

That prisoner said to him there are three key things that you must have in order to survive: 1. Faith, 2. Commitment and Pride.

He said that you cannot choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you will react.

Jerry told his remarkable story of resilience, camaraderie and the dangerous games of resistance they played with the often sadistic guards they encountered.

Here’s how these three things are also critical to your success, regardless of the setbacks or challenges that you may be facing.

1. Faith

I’m not talking about being religious, necessarily, but you’ve got to BELIEVE in what you are doing. Open your mind to inspiration or serendipity, whether it’s divinely inspired or not, since solutions can come from anywhere.

Have you ever heard of a congregation of one person? Me neither, so reach out and share with others on your journey.

Jerry’s stories of how the prisoners banded together to communicate in clever, subtle but effective ways are great examples on how common beliefs and needs can drive success.

2. Commitment

None of us will hopefully ever have to commit ourselves to survival in brutal conditions like a POW must endure, but whatever your goal, project, the level of customer satisfaction you demand for your clients, or your own personal and professional growth that you aspire to, you have to be really all in to make it happen.

It’s rare that half-hearted efforts result in exceptional performance.

3. Pride

Being too proud is one of the seven deadly sins, but you have to demand the best of yourself in all that you do.

As a leader, you are always under examination from others in what you say and do. Always give your best, but remember that the biggest barrier to progress is perfection.

Get the best out of your team by figuring out what they can learn or the how they can grow from any experience, just like you have done for yourself.

One of the key things that really resonated with me about Jerry’s stories was his commitment to himself, his fellow prisoners and being a representative of our country.

I wish I could convey how inspiring Jerry’s experiences were to me and they certainly did reinforce a key perspective that I share with all my clients as they decide upon the goals to focus upon for our coaching engagements.

In my goal setting process I always ask my clients how pursuit of any goal will benefit them, their team and their organization, and I always stress that they focus on the potential benefits in that order.

That may sound somewhat self-serving, but that is the reality of how we assess any situation.

Jerry was very focused on his own survival, but his care for his fellow prisoners and representing his country were always clearly in his line of sight.

As you focus your energy on your work, I encourage you to step back and do your own analysis of the impacts for yourself as well.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I believe in what I’m doing? Am I confident that the energy and efforts of our team will have the intended positive benefits, regardless of whatever project we are engaged in?
  • Have I allocated the right amount of resources, time, and focus to demonstrate my commitment to making things happen well?
  • Upon completion of any significant task or effort, will I be able to say that I am proud of what we have accomplished?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Please share your experiences or ideas with us all in the comments section below.

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    Richard Menozzi January 23, 2015, 10:48 pm

    I don’t really want to speak ill of Gerry because what he’s survived and accomplished is impressive, but as a former college roommate, when he was at Madison, I know he is flawed in one significant area. It is unlikely this situation will present itself again, but NEVER, EVER LET HIM ARRANGE A BLIND FOR ANYONE!


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