Magazine Article | December 12, 2011

Teams Need A Common Purpose

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

By Jeff Appelquist

U.S. Navy pilot Commander James Stockdale was the highest-ranking prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War for his nearly seven years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton camp. He led his fellow POWs throughout their ordeal with imagination and courage, helping many of them survive both physically and psychologically. To do so, he used a variety of leadership techniques, and most importantly, provided the soldiers with a common purpose. “I distilled one all-purpose idea. It is a simple idea, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure … you are your brother’s keeper,” he explained.

Unity Over Self
This concept that the well-being of the whole team was more important than the plight of any one individual was described by Stockdale as “Unity Over Self.”

In leading the prisoners, he faced many obstacles. For example, the men were physically separated with no ability to communicate directly. Stockdale developed a wall tap code and other means of secret messaging allowing him to continually lead and encourage his team. The men also faced loneliness, deprivation, and torture on a daily basis. To combat these problems, Stockdale and his fellow captives organized a clandestine society with its own laws, traditions, and customs.

He succeeded in creating a cohesive culture with ironclad and widely known rules, which perpetuated itself and provided motivation and discipline to its members. Of the 591 Hanoi Hilton POWs who returned safely, almost 80% remained in the military, with 24 of them advancing to the rank of general or admiral. A significant number of these POWs became leaders in business, law, government, or politics. Also, 96% of the former prisoners were free of any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Relevance To Today’s Business Leaders
Why is this amazing story relevant to today’s business leaders? Wilson Learning conducted a survey in 2006 of 25,000 workers in finance and high tech who asserted overwhelmingly that they needed a leader who could “convey clearly what the work unit is trying to do.” This is an incredibly simple proposition, but many leaders fail the test.

Have you as a leader provided your team with a common purpose? Do team members understand and can they articulate that purpose? What is the central idea that drives your organization forward, through good times and bad? If you are fuzzy on these answers, you can bet your team is confused as well. Now is the time to step up and, with confidence and conviction, “convey clearly what the work unit is trying to do.”

Jeff Appelquist is the founder and president of Blue Knight History Seminars, LLC, which provides leadership and team development training at famous historic landmarks. He is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, practicing attorney, and corporate executive. Jeff is the award-winning author of Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg and the Little Bighorn, and Wisdom Is Not Enough: Reflections on Leadership and Teams. His website is and he can be reached at