Never Run Out of Altitude, Airspeed, and Ideas at the Same Time: Lessons From the Vietnam POWs

Bosses can’t control many things at work. In fact, they probably can’t control most things, but they can control their own reactions to unfortunate events, and they can help their direct reports feel authority over their reactions to unpleasant and unexpected changes. When hard times rear their ugly heads, the boss has to be a kind of hero, the rescuer who looks after others and helps them keep from losing their perspective and their coping resources. Becoming aware of the value of humor can increase our understanding of the powerful role mirth and laughter can play in helping us bounce back from hardships, and in turn, help others cope with adversity. In other words, humor can give us a bit of control in situations when we would otherwise feel as though we had no power over our destiny.

The Vietnam POWs:

Why do some people conquer adversity, and others are immobilized by it? The Vietnam POWs offer some answers. In 1973, 566 Vietnam POWs were repatriated to the United States. Evidence from prior captivity situations indicated a high incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fifty to eighty-two percent of the WWII POWs who were studied, particularly those who were imprisoned in the Pacific Theatre, have had a diagnosis of PTSD. Forty-seven to ninety percent of the Korean POWs who were studied have received a diagnosis of PTSD. Because of these staggering numbers, in 1976, the Navy started to study 138 repatriated Vietnam POW. In 1996, they reached surprising conclusions. In their 20-year follow-up, they found that only about 4% of the Vietnam prisoners of war had received a diagnosis of PTSD.

This is astonishing when comparing the Vietnam group to the other captivity situations, but it is also shocking in light of the implications of these numbers.

To give a frame of reference for understanding this, at any given time in a metropolitan area, about 1-4% of the population is walking around with PTSD because of violent crime, natural disasters, or other kinds of trauma. In other words, this group of people, who was imprisoned at least 5 years and as long as for seven or eight years, who was tortured, isolated, and beaten, had no higher incidence of PTSD than the average people in the average city in America. How can that be?

The study participants indicated that there were four main forces in the POWs’ lives that helped them remain resilient: a belief in God, patriotism, a dedication to something bigger than they were, and a sense of humor. These men personified the importance of never losing altitude, airspeed, and ideas at the same time, and humor played a huge role in their ability to keep all three.

Even though their captivity indicated that they had all run out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas at the same time in a realistic sense, in a metaphorical or psychological sense, they were able to sustain all three. Great bosses are people who don’t run out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas at the same time; they are people who can stay resilient in difficult times and help their direct reports do the same.


People want power and authority over their futures. When we perceive that our actions will make an outcome likely, we feel optimistic and secure. When we don’t, we feel insecure. We feel like victims. Sometimes people stay in a victim’s frame of mind after a loss or disappointment. They doubt their capacity to make their lives happen according to their own aspirations, so they wait to be rescued or blessed by good fortune. They start to feel undermined and overwhelmed; and they can become totally immobilized.

But the VPOWs weren’t victims. They were certainly victimized by their captors, but they never saw themselves as victims, no matter what was done to them. They weren’t victims because they took control of the few things they could control. They were told when and what and if they could eat; they were told if and when they could shower, sleep, and use the toilet. They had no say about parts of their lives that people normally take for granted. But they did have control over one thing, and that was their humor perspective, a way of looking at things that allowed them to keep their “altitude.”

In a physical sense, altitude is the elevation of an object above a certain level, usually the earth. Therefore, “altitude” as it applies to leadership, is a global perspective, a realization that there is a bigger picture and no one person is the center of the universe. When bosses indicate that they have altitude, they usually exhibit these behaviors:

· Vision, an ability to see the future and to anticipate consequences.

· Critical thinking–the capability to go into uncharted territory. Managers have the ability to do the right thing well; leaders have the ability to figure out what the right thing is.

· The ability to prioritize, to do first things first and to separate important from unimportant uses of time.

· The motivation to look beyond the obvious.

· The skills to paint credible pictures of possibilities.

· An eagerness to create competitive strategies.

Admiral Stockdale was one of the senior leaders of the POWs. He had the Code of Conduct to rely on to help him keep his global perspective, but no prisoners had experienced what these men were suffering. So, he issued orders for them to resist but not to risk permanent physical or psychological harm. He thought he’d be court marshaled. Instead, he will live in military history as a hero who was responsible for saving the lives of many and ensuring the resilience of hundreds of others.

“Leadership” does not always come from the leader, however. One of the stories that lives in the POW histories and clearly illustrates the importance of keeping altitude involved a lieutenant who had been shot down in an F-4 Phantom. He was tortured to force him to give the maximum airspeed of the F-4. He told them the top speed of the F-4 was 500 knots, a number that is much lower than the actual maximum speed. The captors said they knew he was lying because a major had just told them that the speed was closer to Mach 2. Thinking quickly, and trying to avoid torture for himself and the major, he said, “Well, that guys is a major. I’m only a lieutenant. They don’t let lieutenants fly as fast as they let majors fly.”

By keeping his wits about him, this young lieutenant was able to anticipate the consequences of his answer and to venture into uncharted territory, something that training had not prepared him for. He wasn’t trying to be funny, but stories of his quick wit soon spread throughout the POW community and validated their awareness that through humor, they could claim some control over what was happening. Aviators understand altitude in a real and a metaphorical sense, and bosses can learn to too.

During times of adversity, there is much we can’t control, but our global perspective, our altitude, is one thing we can take charge of.


Airspeed is velocity, the force that make us go forward. Relationships are one of the main sources of fuel that helps successful bosses accelerate their productivity and that of others. The boss who avoids running out of airspeed tends to have these traits:

· A knack for building relationships

· A strong motivation to follow through

· A willingness and availability to listen

· A genuine interest in people

· The capacity to convey respect for people and their ideas

· The confidence to tell people what they need to know, not just what they want to hear.

Communication is the primary tool that helps us form relationships and develop closeness in our personal and professional lives. For the VPOWs, however, communication was difficult and sometimes nearly impossible. Yet, it became a priority.

In 1965, a man named Bob Shumaker realized that the POWs were going to need a communication system. Bob Shumaker had gone 133 days without face-to-face contact with another American. For over four months, Bob Shumaker was in solitary confinement, but he knew there was another American in the complex, because he had seen him: Hayden Lockhart. All of the POWs emptied their waste buckets in the same latrine area. Through the cracks in his walls, Bob Shumaker had seen another American there, and he knew he needed to make contact with this other American. But he wasn’t sure how he wanted to do this. Finally, he decided that he would write a note on toilet paper.

Bob Shumaker decided to write a three word note on a scrap of toilet paper and hide it behind a piece of cement in the latrine. He had to be very careful about what he wrote on this piece of toilet paper-it couldn’t be very much and it had to be the exact words that he needed to say. On this scrap of toilet paper Bob Shumaker wrote three words, three words that in essence said, “scratch your area where your mother specifically told you not to scratch in public.”

His thinking was two-fold. First of all, he wanted to write something that an American would know only another American would write so that the person receiving the three word note would not suspect duplicity. Second, he wanted to devise a signal that would not arouse suspicion in the captors.

He wrote the note on the scrap of toilet paper, and day after day, he stood peeking through the cracks in his room, and day after day, Hayden Lockhart came out of the latrine and made no signal. Finally, one day, Hayden Lockhart came out and made a huge display of scratching the region in question and facing every part of the compound. The communication system was born. However, even though they had created a way of communication, they realized its limitations and knew they would have to have other ways of communicating.

Shortly after this, Bob Shumaker was given some roommates. One of them, Smitty Harris, remembered the “tap code” that he had learned from a survival school that he had attended. Because they could tap almost all of the time, the Tap Code became the most sophisticated communication system that they had. Originally, this was devised to be a communication system for getting policy throughout the POW camp, but it quickly became a way for staying connected to one another, keeping morale up, and for sharing jokes. The Tap Code is a 25-letter alphabet that uses the “C” and “K” interchangeably. It was an arduous task to tap a message one letter at a time, but they quickly became proficient at the code and spent hours each day committed to staying in touch with each other.

The captors soon realized there was a communication system, so they tortured Stockdale to give up the system and the players in the system. They tortured him one day almost to his breaking point with the promise that if he did not tell them what they wanted to know the next day, they would do it to him again. Knowing that he was close to capitulating, Stockdale went back to his cell that night, broke a window, took a shard of glass, and cut his wrists. He had been willing to die to protect the communication system. The next morning, the captors found him in a pool of his own blood, unconscious, and they never tortured him again. Stockdale knew that he was protecting something vital when he attempted to end his life for the sake of a communication system that the POWs would need to stay resilient and hardy.

Relationships, communication, closeness, and humor, all of these are fuel for us, airspeed that keeps us going through adversity and helps us help others too. The Vietnam POWs literally risked their lives to stay connected to each other, but how often do we walk past the desk of a co-worker, too busy to even risk losing a minute of our day to stay connected? A global perspective helps us realize that we aren’t the center of the universe and that our problems pale in comparison to those of some others, and communicating with those that we care about helps us keep this perspective. Altitude and airspeed are two critical elements for success, but there’s one more: Ideas


Creative problem solving is probably one of the most essential talents a leader can possess. Bosses who can look at diverse information and see relationships, who can reason abstractly and make logical connections, and who can think of the future as open and malleable bring an invaluable asset to their organizations: ideas. When leaders have ideas, they can solve the unfamiliar problems they encounter and make decisions that are in the best interest of their direct reports and the organization because of these skills:

· An openness to brainstorming and creativity

· The motivation and enthusiasm to challenge existing processes

· A knack for inviting input from a variety of perspectives

· A willingness to experiment with novel approaches and champion innovation

The POWs found themselves in an drastically altered world, one that they had never encountered before and, in spite of some training, one for which they were ill prepared. But like great leaders throughout history, they had the ability to engage in creative problem solving. They had ideas.

One of the classic stories of the POWs that illustrates this willingness to experiment with novel approaches involved Jerry Venanzi and his motorcycle, a story that quickly became a legend in the POW community. One day, Jerry Venanzi was outside when he noticed some of the other POWs were staked out and being treated miserably. He did not have any control over how he could help his fellow POWs, except he thought he might be able to make them laugh, so he decided to try that.

Putting his brilliant idea into action, he created an imaginary motorcycle, which he got on and rode around the compound. His fellow POWs started to laugh. Being somewhat of a ham, Jerry Venanzi realized that this idea was indeed funny, so he’d stage a spill, feign an injury, and limp. He’d hobble over and show somebody how he’d gotten a burn or some other kind of injury from the motorcycle. His act was so convincing that some of the POWs started to tap to one another, “Has Venanzi lost it?”

One of the things that the POWs found most humorous, however, was that the commander of the compound finally called Jerry Venanzi in and told him that he had to get rid of the motorcycle. As the commander pointed out, it wasn’t fair. All the POWs couldn’t have motorcycles so; Jerry Venanzi shouldn’t be able to have a motorcycle either. So, he reluctantly got rid of his imaginary motorcycle.

However, since he was disappointed about the loss of the motorcycle and since he was in solitary confinement, Jerry Venanzi decided to create an imaginary companion, a monkey that he called Barney Google. The stories of Barney Google went like wildfire through the community because Barney became the voice of the POWs. Jerry Venanzi would take his imaginary monkey into what was called an interrogation, and, as he was being asked questions, he would turn to the imaginary monkey and say “NO! I’m not going to tell them that! Because, if I tell them that, they’ll beat the hell outta me! You’re just going to have to shut up.” The interrogator would then say, “What did he say?” Who was in charge of this interrogation? Jerry Venanzi would seize this opportunity to say, “He’s sick of the food. It’s lousy food and he’s tired of it. We don’t have enough blankets, we’re freezing to death,” Whatever their complaint was, Barney said it on their behalf.

During one interrogation, the camp commander offered Barney tea, which Jerry Venanzi declined on behalf of Barney, pointing out that Barney didn’t like tea. This ruse continued for quite a some time, all the while fueling the POWs’ feelings of having some degree of control, if only to their reactions and their openness to finding way to be connected to one another.

Finally, one day, the captors once again called Jerry Venanzi in and said that he would have to get rid of the dirty animal because he was getting some roommates. They were certain the roommates wouldn’t like the dirty animal. Of course Venanzi disagreed, but he finally capitulated and let Barney go on to another life outside the walls of the Hanoi Hilton, but Venanzi’s idea lived on ideas are certainly critical for leaders, but leadership is not only about position, experience, knowledge, and education. It’s also about the willingness to experiment with ideas to help solve problems that no one has encountered before. Certainly Jerry Venanzi was a person who assumed this leadership function. Doug Hegdahl was another, but he was barely old enough to be considered a man.

Doug Hegdahl was a 19-year old seaman who, in violation of policy, went out on a ship during a thunderstorm and was washed overboard. A Viet-Cong fishing boat picked him up and took him to the Hanoi Hilton. However, he wasn’t like the other prisoners that were there. He was the only non-aviator, and he was only a teenager. He quickly realized that he could trick the captors into thinking he was dim-witted or stupid because he couldn’t have answered any of the questions they asked him, even if he wanted to. He did not know about flying; he did not know about targets; he did not know the answers to any of their questions. Since his captors were confused about this very different kind of prisoner, Hegdahl had an idea.

To create more confusion for the guards, he started sucking on a pen and getting ink all over himself. When they asked him to write a propaganda statement, he would ask them how to spell a word, such as “American.” Hegdahl’s ruse had immediate and enormous implications. The captors underestimated him and made the tactical error of putting him a cell of one of the POW leaders, Dick Stratton.

Dick Stratton groomed Doug Hegdahl, and Stockdale, the acting senior leader, ordered Hegdahl to take the early release the Vietnamese had offered this seemingly simple-minded child. As the only person who was authorized to accept early release, Hegdahl returned home with 200 names, went to the Paris Peace talks, and told about the mistreatment of the POWs. In the archives of military history, a 19-year old Navy Seaman is one of the most heroic figures. This 19 year old teenager never ran out of ideas, but neither did he run out of altitude or airspeed. Through his involvement in a well-defined system, he was able to remain resilient and healthy and to ensure the safe return of many of his fellow POWs.


The need for control served as a framework for the VPOWs who created and maintained a system of strong interpersonal relationships and group affiliation that helped them survive over seven years in captivity and thrive during the years since repatriation. Humor was one of the elements of this system. The VPOWs taught each other how to use humor as a weapon for fighting back and as a tool for building cohesion.

To prevent a disjunction of the self and to find meaning in a situation void of meaning, the VPOWs relied on resources many of them did not know they had. Their internal sense of mirth and humor, their reliance on one another, and their group interactions all combined to create a system for survival. Their humor perspective provided the framework for discovering how to cope with their captivity, and their commitment to one another other gives an important perspective about what coping is made of. The role humor can play in bouncing back from adversity, especially when we are linked to others who will help us laugh, seems critical.

Because they were cemented in a strong social structure, they had a buffer against fragmentation of self or of the system. The VPOW accounts indicate these men formed a system that defined and encouraged humor among the group’s members. These men relied on humor not in spite of the crisis but because of it. The VPOWs’ system was a powerful civilizing force that discouraged any antisocial slip into a kind of jungle mentality. Control is central to individuals’ health, their personal benefits, and in the case of the Vietnam POWs, their actual survival.

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