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Book review: Learning from dark times

Knocking knuckles taught POWs leadership, even in Hanoi

Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:03PM   |  
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Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams
By Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland
Naval Institute Press, 184 pages, $27.95
Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters
By Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber
Ballantine Books, 214 pages, $25

As noted by the authors of this book, crediting the frequently cited James Stockdale, one of the highest-ranking U.S. prisoners in Vietnam: “The culture developed at the Hanoi Hilton can be defined by three concepts: virtual leadership, viral culture and a social network.”

Today those concepts seem like a mashup of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. But from 1964 to 1973, the only way prisoners of war in this infamous facility — as many as 340 — could communicate was by tapping letters that formed words. Those knocking knuckles, it turns out, nurtured ideas “any organization can replicate”:

1. The mission leads. Be “mission-centric, not leader-centric.”

2. You are your brother’s keeper. “Leaders protect followers by creating an environment of inclusion, honesty and second chances.”

3. Think big and basically. Rules are minimal and simple, with “personal responsibility and authority.”

Don’t piss off the turnkey. Effectiveness and efficiency can reserve “energies for what can be controlled.”

5. Keep the faith. “Rational beliefs and optimism” dominate. Setbacks are “temporary, local, and external — not permanent, pervasive or personal.”

6. The power of we. Find “personal and organizational meaning” and connection in values and goals. In this case, that means “return [to the U.S.] with honor.”

Citing publications, studies and interviews and offering 11 versions of a diagram — with unnecessarily tiny text — showing how the characteristics interact, “Lessons” provides fodder for classroom and conference-room discussions about the amazing traits of POWs who “later pursued highly successful careers in leadership positions.”

Thirty-nine POWs are mentioned, but only a few in meaningful detail. For example:

■ Former airman Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, reacts to a fellow House member’s outrage: “The Vietnamese held me for seven years. [He] can only be chairman for six.”

■ Orson Swindle, a former Marine who would become commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, composed a compassionate email to his coworkers in the wake of 9/11 that “is a wise and rational prescription for uncertainty.”

People personify theoretical principles. If “Lessons” offered more personal examples of success, and listed — on its two-page table — the “leadership positions” eventually attained by the 39, its prescription would be wiser, more quantifiable and more memorable.

Facing death and bullets

Three years ago, then-Gen. David Petraeus asked Iraq veteran Mark Weber to “join his team on a special mission to Afghanistan,” and as a precaution Weber asked a doctor to look at his ulcer before he deployed.

The “ulcer” was cancer, Stage IV, and “it looked as if I might survive combat and 21 years in the Army only to succumb to cancer at age 39.”

Three years later, Weber is alive. This is the second edition of his book, after the first, self-published six months ago, sold nearly 10,000 copies.

The new publisher probably should keep the press running, for “Tell My Sons” is a candid and sometimes comical chronology of life and an unabashed embrace of impending death.

“Everyone’s clock is ticking,” Weber says, “but my clock we can hear.” He seeks no sympathy and solicits no sentimentality.

Here are some thoughts from what was originally intended as a literary legacy for Weber’s three sons:

■ “In combat, there are bullets and bombs. But the only real difference with cancer is the scenery and the fighters, because with cancer, you still have to face both an enemy and your own fears.”

■ “The ability to see [death] coming and make it happen on my terms has to be the next best thing to living a long life. ... [M]y funeral is going to be downright anticlimactic.”

J. Ford Huffman is a Military Times book reviewer.

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