This guest blog has been provided by Kevin Sheridan, best-selling author and innovator in the field of Employee Engagement.
I recently finished reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Best Seller Unbroken, which I am certain will be a blockbuster movie once it is released on Christmas day this year. This book shares the incredible story of Louis Zamperini – a story of his triumphs in track, surviving both a crash of his B-24 World War II bomber and 47 days in a raft at sea scrummaging for, and sustaining his life with albatross, fish, and rainwater, while being surrounded by all kinds of sharks, including Great Whites. This amazing story goes on to tell of the brutal and sadistic World War II abuse Louis endured in multiple Japanese POW camps, as well as his amazing recovery from post-war traumatic disorder.
Louis’ story begins with his transition from being juvenal delinquent in Torrence, California to an Olympic runner in the 1936 Hitler-sponsored Berlin Olympic Games only to become a severely-starved prisoner of war weighing all of 67 pounds. “All I see is a dead body breathing,” he said.
The conditions at the POW camps were nothing sort of horrific. Of the 27,000 POWs interned in these camps, 40% died. By comparison, only 1% of the POWs in German POW camps perished.
One of the keys to Louis’ success was the mentorship provided by his brother Pete, who not only encouraged Louis to take up and dedicate himself to track, but encouraged him to set higher goals like running in the Olympic Games, and how to commit to continuous improvement. Interestingly parallel, literally all of the Best-in-class companies I have worked with over the years encouraged both meaningful mentorship and continuous improvement.
After one year of no sign of Zamperini after the crash of his B-24, the U.S. Government declared him dead. His family refused to accept this and in fact, had a fervent and undying belief that Louis was still alive. Indeed, they were fully engaged to this belief, even buying and saving his Christmas gifts for his eventual return in October, 1945. And Louis leveraged his love of family as a bedrock of strength during his capture.
Interviewed by Tom Brokaw before his death in July of this year, Louis explained how he survived his POW internment: “I am a positive person. No matter what the situation is, I work hard to be content. I work hard to handle it. I learned hard to handle it.”
So do engaged employees. They also exhibit the same positivity in trying and uncertain times.
For much of his later life, Louis leveraged the art of having fun, another key to building world-class engagement. When first interviewed with the author Hillenbrand, who also wrote the New York Times Best Seller Seabiscuit, he said “I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit, because I can talk.” He actually took up skateboarding in his 70s and had fun doing it until he was 80 years old.
The level of perseverance and courage Louis exhibited throughout his life is a model for sustaining engagement in both work and life. In fact, Angelina Jolie, who is directing the soon-to-be-released movie, credits her relationship with Louis to masking the bold decision to have a double-mastectomy in order to proactively save her own life from the genetic threat of cancer. Jolie boldly made this decision very public in a New York Times Op Ed piece. Later dubbed “The Angelina Effect,” the publicity is credited for a huge rise in preemptive genetic testing and for saving thousands of woman’s lives.
I wonder whether while in Japan ever heard one of my favorite phrases, “Gambate Kudasai,” which figuratively means “Good luck,” but literally means “Persevere.” Indeed, Louis steadfastly persevered and stayed as positive as her could in the face of calamity and barbaric war crimes.
Given that the number one driver of engagement is recognition/appreciation, it is very fitting that two of Louis’ last acts were to give Hillenbrand his one of his Purple Hearts and Jolie a Gold Track Shoe he won from one of his track races in 1940 which she wears on a necklace. When Louis gave Hillenbrand one his Purple Hearts, he sent a note to her that said, “You deserve this more than I do.” Hillenbrand remarked, “He’s very wrong about that, but his gesture moved me beyond words.”
Louis’ redemption ultimately came through religion and helping troubled young men recapture their lives. He chose to eschew victimhood and to embrace positivity, abundance, and family – all central to building world-class outcomes.
In the end, Unbroken is about forgiveness. Louis completely forgive his former captors. Japan forgave itself and graciously invited Louis to carry the torch to the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano. Having let go of what was once seething anger, Louis was able to thoroughly enjoy the smiling and heartfelt faces of the thousands of Japanese people that lined the way as he ran with the torch.
Kevin Sheridan is an Internationally-recognized Key-Note Speaker and New York Times Best Selling Author. He spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, helping some of the world’s largest corporations break down detrimental processes and rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors in the process. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long- overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement. He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers. His book, “Building a Magnetic Culture,” made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.