During this time of the year, I always take a moment to reflect on all of the things I am thankful for. My list is long, and many of my blessings include the obvious: family, friends, health, and liberty. But during these periods of reflection, my mind seems to always come back to Charlie Plumb and the many other courageous pilots, sailors and airmen who spent time as POWs during the Vietnam war. Captain Plumb, Captain Jerry Coffee, Admiral James Stockdale and many other POWs like them taught me about duty, honor, and country by maintaining a code of honor and dignity under the most adverse conditions.
Charlie Plumb was the first keynote speaker I ever saw. He spoke to the United Airlines Pilots Union in 1985 to bolster their spirits and resolve during a 29-day strike. I had the privilege of sitting in on his keynote speech because my father was a United Airlines pilot. Charlie Plumb was an F-4 Phantom fighter pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and spent six years in captivity before being released at the end of the war. As you might imagine, torture was a routine event at the Hanoi Hilton prison and Captain Plumb and his fellow prisoners found themselves facing difficult leadership decisions regarding individual well-being which was often in conflict with upholding “the prisoner’s code.”
The Prisoner’s Code
Plumb recounts how when he had arrived on the scene, the prisoners had already established an organizational code of conduct by which all lived. In the military, a code does not have the force of law or regulation; you won’t go to jail for violating it. Rather a code is a compelling moral compass with a focus on the greater good of the group.
Charlie Plumb talks about how the first point of the prisoner’s code was “No escape attempts without outside help.” This precept was established due to the low probability of success, and the certainty of remaining prisoners being tortured after any escape attempt. During his speech Captain Plumb stated that this part of the code was violated by two men who made a secret escape, but as predicted they only made it a few miles before being captured. While they were missing the entire prison population was tortured repeatedly. After their ultimate capture, one of the two escapees was never seen again.
All teams, whether in the military, business, or others, are well served by adhering to some sort of code. The code can be written, but in many cases it’s an unwritten or even an unspoken set of rules by which the team aspires to live. Many people in the military would also call this Commander’s Intent. A commander’s intent doesn’t clearly outline how team members should operate in every possible situation, rather it articulates principles that individuals and teams can use to guide their decision-making.
The Code Helped The Men to Envision Success
During his keynote speech, Captain Plumb gave an example of another element of the code created by their POW leader Admiral James Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale mandated the order in which the prisoners were to be released: sick and injured first followed by enlisted men in their order of capture, and finally by the officers in their order of capture. From the very outset, the code set the prisoners’ expectations for their eventual release, and smoothed the process as prisoners were finally sent home. It also created a feeling of control and unity among a group of people who often felt helpless and alone.
As a leader, Admiral Stockdale created alignment among his men in an environment where “every man for himself” could have easily reigned supreme.
Violating the Code
Captain Plumb also shared how two officers violated the code towards the end of the war when the North Vietnamese released three prisoners for propaganda purposes. Two officers volunteered, and Admiral Stockdale chose to send a third enlisted troop along who had a photographic memory. Stockdale had the enlisted man memorize all 200+ prisoner’s names, hometowns, closest relatives, and phone numbers. When the three men returned to San Diego, with two year’s pay in their pockets, the two officers went off to resume their lives, while the third man travelled across country to the hometowns of the POW’s still in captivity to share with their relatives that their son or husband was still alive. The officers did not violate any laws but they clearly violated the code.
A Tough Decision the Code Made Very Easy
At the very end of the war, with the prisoner’s release only a few weeks away, Henry Kissinger was visiting Hanoi. He had room for 20 or so prisoners on his plane, so he asked the North Vietnamese to release a few. They selected prisoners – not in line with the code, but with another methodology – and the prisoners refused to go – much to the consternation of their captors. Stockdale finally convinced the North Vietnamese to have an American officer visit the prison and “order” the men to go, so they could leave with a clear conscience regarding the code. As Plumb got on the plane with that first batch of POWs, he turned at the top of the stairs and blew Vietnam a big goodbye kiss.
A Plug for Plumb
If you ever get a chance to see Charlie Plumb tell his story during a keynote speech – I highly recommend you find yourself a seat in the front row. I also strongly recommend his book “I’m No Hero”. It is very well written, full of lessons in leadership and almost impossible to put down once you start reading.
What code does *Your* team live by?
Some companies or teams manage to boil their code down to something simple. Southwest Airlines has a code of “Doing the Right Thing.”
Every employee at this world class airline knows that their primary job is providing “Safe, comfortable, and reliable air transportation.” Breaking from this code would be deviating from their CEO’s intent and would never be tolerated. Such a yardstick is a simple but powerful way to guide decisions. When the going gets tough, what are your team’s rules of the road? Does your code help your team to define success? Can they use it as a yardstick for tough decisions?
As a business leader, if you don’t already have a code in your organization, I would strongly encourage you to develop one. Your people are eager to understand their commander’s intent and to develop a code of guiding principles by which they can live.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I for one am thankful for Captain Charlie Plumb and his fellow POWs who showed me how to represent their organizations with courage and honor in the toughest times. Reading Captain Plumb’s book or watching him deliver a keynote speech will have the same effect on you.