Last fall, I signed up with a group to go fishing off Cape Hatteras, and was asked to serve as coordinator for our boat.
This meant I had to organize transportation and meeting points for a bunch of guys I didn’t know. I needed a couple drivers with big vehicles. The first guy I called was Jim Mulligan, III. Right away, he stepped up and said he could drive and take three other passengers. He had a truck that could handle gear and coolers for fish. Jim’s willingness to help and be part of the solution struck me as being unusual. It made more sense later.
From there on out, the other details fell into place. Everyone met at the appointed time and place and we got out to Cape Hatteras uneventfully.
That evening before dinner, we were all sitting around the rental house having a drink when Jim and another guy, Gary, realized they had previously met at a men’s group.
In that meeting, Jim had divulged that his father, Jim Mulligan Jr. , was a Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and had been a POW for seven years. Gary had wanted then to talk more with Jim Mulligan III about his father but he didn't get the chance, not until they met again unexpectedly at the Cape Hatteras trip, that is.
There, we all talked about the impact that had on Jim’s family. He also promised to give me a copy of the book his father had written about his experiences. A couple weeks later, Jim made good on his promise, handing me The Hanoi Commitment.
I do a lot of work with leaders and, sometimes, leaders in adverse conditions. This book – matter-of-factly yet descriptively written with such utter humility and spirituality - left me in awe.
What leadership characteristics did Ret. US Navy Capt. Jim Mulligan describe and embody at the time?
- Courage and determination - He had a real sense for right and wrong. His life, especially during captivity, was about duty, honor and family. He endured long periods of solitary confinement. He knew his job as a POW was to survive and not give out useful information to his captors, even while being tortured.
- Spirituality - He spent many weeks in solidarity confinement. He was a practicing Catholic all his life, but that faith was severely tested as a POW. He described his relationship with his Higher Power as a source of strength. In his darkest hour, it was also a source of hope.
- Tenacity - He would never give up. At times, there was an easy but inappropriate road he could’ve gone down but would never take. In the face of physical and mental torture, he would never give in. He and his fellow captives received little to eat. He endured sweltering summers and frigid winters with nothing to temper those conditions.
- Resolve - There were many times during his captivity when he was the most senior person among his fellow POWs. His “men” looked to him for leadership. He took a stand and demanded fair treatment for himself and his fellow soldiers many times, at great personal cost from his captors. He was tortured when he demanded things agreed to under the Geneva Convention. He held his ground and personally paid the price in order to help his troops.
- Compassion - There were some fellow prisoners who were unable to withstand the pressures of captivity. Jim tried to get them to not give in and once again resist their captors but did not condemn their inability to do so.
- Tolerance for physical pain and a commitment to maintain his physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing- Jim sustained a broken shoulder when he was shot down that was never treated until after his release from captivity. He had dysentery and parasites that went basically untreated, sapping his strength. The small amount of food he received caused him to lose a tremendous amount of weight; he was skin and bones. In the face of that abuse, he still tried to maintain his own physical conditioning. He “worked out” in his cell. He memorized and reviewed information in his head on all POWs captured to keep his mind active. And he fostered a daily, and sometimes much more frequent, relationship will his Higher Power as a means to endure his torture and maintain his sanity.
- Gratitude and hope - He looked for something to be thankful for in even the most adverse conditions. He found a way to be joyous about the mundane. After surviving incredible abuse, he found a reason to be hopeful about today, endure whatever it offered and be optimistic about what tomorrow might bring.
The description of his release and journey home to be reunited with his family and friends brought tears to my eyes. The Navy paid for him to obtain a master’s degree that was also aimed at helping him to “catch up” on what he missed during captivity. He is now in his 90s and lives with his wife in the Virginia Beach area.
The leadership capabilities Capt. Mulligan demonstrated while under incredibly adverse conditions would still be applicable to leaders in the public or private sector.
We all are asked to make choices as leaders. Do we make the “right” choice or the easy choice? Do we serve as role models for others? Do we exercise our physical, mental and spiritual muscles every day? Do we know what gives our life purpose, and are we taking steps to be fulfilled?
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