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Lead with an Optimistic Attitude

4 Resilient Ways to Lead with an Optimistic Attitude

Here’s the bottom line of being resilient—first, you must be optimistic. Believe that there is a good outcome, and then do your part to reach it with a positive mindset.

Optimism Under Pressure

One of my resilience stories occurred as a young fighter pilot when I was blown out of the sky over enemy territory in November 1967. I was captured immediately and taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Six weeks later, as we began a new year, I concluded that the war would end in a few months, and I’d be out in time to attend the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

When July came that year, my group moved to a newly opened camp at Son Tay instead. It was clear that the end of the war (and our release) was not any closer. So, I decided I could make it another year. I’d plan to be home by the summer of 1969. But when that summer came, we were going through some tough times and not even close to release. So, I decided I could make it two more years, but it turned out to be three and a half years before the war ended and the POW release began.

Every POW I knew believed that someday we were going home, and our laser focus was to do our duty to resist the enemy and stay committed to our teammates. Optimism was a critical factor in helping us endure hardship and disappointment.

The research by psychologists following our release found that optimism was the leading factor in our resilience and survival over those many years of suffering and sacrifice. It also helped us emerge mentally and emotionally healthy as we returned home to our wives and families*.

Choosing and Abiding in Optimism

How did we do it? Typical optimism definitions include words like hopefulness, confidence in success, and a positive outcome, but let’s look at some of the keys from this experience –  

1. We believed in ourselves.

To be a healthy, successful person, you must believe in yourself. Henry Ford is attributed with the great quote, “Whether you believe you can or can’t, you are probably right.”

I also frequently revisit the importance of encouraging and believing in others. Leaders need to help their people believe in themselves.

During difficult and defeating moments as a POW, my fellow POWs believed in me and said I needed to believe in myself. This was critical to know that others believed in them.

2. We believed in our mission and purpose.

When you are committed to these two goals, you will work through challenges with a positive attitude that will help you come out the other side—and with more experience and resilience. Three of our senior leaders were POWs for more than seven years. They were tortured the most and in solitary confinement for more than four years, yet they bounced back and stayed positive.

3. We had great relationships with others who cared about us.

Teamwork was so crucial in the POW camps that we would risk isolation and torture to communicate with other cells, especially if someone was living alone. The truth is that it’s challenging to be a healthy person if you are living alone in your world. Knowing that others care about you and that you are important to them is essential for a healthy human nature.

4. We had faith in a higher power.

First and foremost, faith in God was a key component of POW resilience. This idea will be familiar if you read books about the Vietnam POW experience. We were at the complete mercy of our captors; they had the power of life and death over us. Thus, dependence on a higher power was typically our first response, and I’m happy to say it’s been a lasting one for most of us.

Our Coaching Opportunity

Despite so many negative issues and events today, let’s accept them, refocus on the positive perspective, and put our energy into moving forward one step at a time to accomplish our goals.


As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, Lee Ellis is a nationally-recognized consultant, presenter, and retired USAF Colonel who shares his leadership, team building, and human performance expertise. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam POW experience is entitled Captured by Love: Inspiring True Romance Stories from Vietnam POWs, chronicling stories from 20 top gun fighter pilot POWs and how their relationships survived and thrived over the 50+ years.

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