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Pay It Forward

Michael Roman - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Guest Blog by Lee Ellis:

Looking back, 2013 was a very busy year for most of us—what a blur of activity! Some of my closest friends were worried that I wouldn’t be able to sustain the pace of traveling, speaking, book signing, consulting, coaching and even working on a new book. There were challenging moments, but amazingly my energy and spirits remained high. I attribute this not to a special energy drink but to the infusion of generous encouragement and affirmation that I received from so many people throughout the year. Not only did I receive much more than I gave, but I’ve never felt so free to be myself. This giving from others brought me a new level of freedom and made the difference in my year. 

As a former Vietnam POW, you can imagine how meaningful freedom is to me and how sensitive I am about the concept. As a leadership consultant and coach, I see that we all have mindsets from our past that are like shackles holding us  back from being our best self—hence the tagline for my consulting company  that says “Freeing Leaders To Lead Higher.”

Now in reflection, I can see how others freed me to climb higher in 2013. With this fresh perspective, I’m making a commitment to pay it forward in 2014. To do that I’ll need a spirit of giving not just at the holidays, but I’ll need to be a giver every day of the year in three specific areas: personhood, performance, and potential.

Give affirmation. This is about personhood. We all want to count, to be valued, to know that we are important in this life. In our daily interactions with others, we have a choice to be a giver or a taker; it’s much healthier to give than to be needy taker. My goal is to authentically lift others up and not add to the burdens of self-doubt that we all carry. I’m going to be more intentional about affirming their uniqueness, recognizing their talents, and helping them see how special they are. 

Give encouragement. This is about performance. Positive feedback reinforces mental and muscle memory, and it also energizes the recipient. That’s the energy that was propelling this old fighter pilot to light the afterburners and soar rather than fizzle in 2013! I want to encourage others, but sometimes my old habits as an Air Force instructor pilot kick in. Grading every maneuver against perfection was required in that job, but it’s not very helpful in leadership (and most relationships, for that matter). I need to raise my awareness and emotional intelligence to quickly and consistently recognize small successes and good execution.

Give others a vision for their future. This is about potential. From my early years, I had a few people who saw something in me that I didn’t see. In small and large ways, they communicated that vision to me—subtly calling me out to reach my potential. During the difficult years in the POW cells, those messages echoed through my mind and inspired me onward toward the day when I would finally be free again. For years I’ve made it part of my mission to pay back the bank for this great investment that was made in me by so many.  This year, I want to take the risk and double down in expressing my faith in others because I personally know how valuable it can be.

We all have times when we fight the demons of discouragement and doubt, but focusing on ourselves usually makes us needy.  Instead of being takers, let’s commit to become better givers.  It’s a freeing behavior for the giver and the receiver, and it’s mutually beneficial for both parties.  Will you join me in my effort to free others to live and lead higher in 2014? Share your comments and plans for the new year in this forum.

As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, human performance, and succession planning. His media appearances include interviews on networks such as CNN, C-Span, ABC World News, and Fox News Channel. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam POW experience is entitled Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton. Learn more at

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