Interview With an American Hero

This article is part of our Rising Stars Portfolios series. Follow Jason on Twitter.

We Fools have a passion to learn more about what makes companies great. And the great companies, the companies that as David and Tom Gardner would say are "leading the world forward," tend to have great leaders behind them every step of the way.

Founder-led businesses such as Apple, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) , and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) are some of the most popular companies in our Foolish universe and are excellent examples of this, thanks to the vision and leadership of their founders -- Steve Jobs, Reed Hastings, and Jeff Bezos.

Our leader here at The Motley Fool, CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner, recently had the distinguished opportunity to interview Louis Zamperini. Recognized as an American hero, Zamperini was a World War II prisoner of war and is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken. Tom took this time to learn more about Zamperini's views on life and leadership. The following is a lightly edited version of their conversation.

Tom Gardner: The first question that I wanted to ask you is very simple: How do you define leadership?

Louis Zamperini: First of all, when I train young people in the church to lead, if we are going to go somewhere, the leader should go and do it first so that when he takes the kids out there, they respect him because he knows where he is going and what he is going to do. Leadership: Always prepare things in advance so there are no slip-ups. 

Now as far as a title for that, I don't know exactly, but the main thing is being prepared for anything, any eventuality, before you take kids up, because you are responsible for their safety.

TG: I think of you having been put in a number of incredible leadership roles through tremendous crises, and I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about the role that some of these things played in your survival and in your leadership during crisis situations. 

LZ: I think you hit it on the head: survival. I think the first greatest survival course you can take is Eagle Scout. You go through everything. When you hear about people climbing Mount Hood, every year two or three guys die up there, yet they are often called experienced climbers. Well, that doesn't mean anything. Have they had survival training? That is the main thing in any outdoor activity. One woman recently hiked up Baldy, but people weren't worried because she was an experienced hiker. Well, has she had survival training? She didn't. They found her dead. 

The first thing about survival is always do things in pairs, so in case something happens, you can send for help, like that movie 127 Hours and the guy who cut his arm off, right?

TG: Exactly.

LZ: Well, I didn't see the movie, but people who saw it said yes, they emphasized the fact that you should have somebody with you. Now we had an attorney on a big case in L.A., and he lived in Ojai and he went hiking up Sespe Creek alone. He didn't show up for the trials, and somebody found him two weeks later lying in the stream. So what he did, he fell and hit his head against a rock and knocked himself out, and his face was in the water. You don't dare go anywhere in the wilderness, even local, not without somebody with you. This is absolutely essential, and that is really what I press kids on. Take as many survival courses as you can. 

Now when I was in Hawaii, there were 27,000 servicemen, and they had a special at the university on survival in the South Pacific. Out of 27,000, 15 of us showed up.  What I learned there came in handy on the life raft. Survival training -- I would take it. Take survival training on both land and sea, and then you are pretty well covered.

TG: How much do you think your survival was supported just by your sense of optimism in life?

LZ: Well, when you have had survival training, you have no doubts about yourself. You have no doubts about surviving. You have a positive mind about living through it; you never think about death.

Now people ask me, "Did you ever think about dying on the raft?" I said, "No, I was too busy staying alive." Not only did I have a lot of survival training, but when you are in an unknown place like the South Pacific out on a raft, your survival training helps you invent new methods of survival as you go along -- in other words, how to catch a fish. When I ran out of the proper hooks for fish, I took the bigger hooks and I tied one to my little finger, index finger, and my thumb. When the shot came by with a pilot fish, I would reach in and grab the pilot fish, and of course, the harder he tried to get away, the further the hooks dug in. OK, that isn't in the books, but because of your survival training, you invent things that go along here. Your mind is active and you are able to create new methods of doing things.

TG: Do you think that your sense of ingenuity and your survival instincts were made stronger by your pursuit of mastery as a runner in high school?

LZ: You have to persevere, and running teaches that. First of all, you learn how to train and you don't break your training, so you develop that sense of accomplishment. If you are going to do anything, you have got to go for it all the way. If you are going to be an attorney, you shouldn't be haphazard. You should go all the way, study everything you can to be the best. I taught survival on both land and sea, glacier climbing, and I have skied glaciers in New Zealand and climbed a 14,000-foot glacier in Wyoming and then climbed to the end two days later and skied it. 

The rangers there in 1957 had never heard of anybody skiing that glacier, but I only did that because I had a lot of survival training, and I know exactly how to live in the snow, how to dig a snow cave. Now digging a snow cave is not enough, so I take one of the little plastic coats that they give to kids so they don't get wet. Well, those things are so lightweight, just a few ounces, and I keep one of those in my backpack, and then if I am up on the mountain when a blizzard comes in, I can just dig a snow cave.  That keeps the chill factor off of you, but it also prevents your body from throwing away heat.

What you do is you put this plastic little thing over your body, and then you get in the snow cave. Now the heat that is dissipating hits the plastic and goes back in your body. Why these guys don't do that, I don't know -- I have preached it for years, and I have about 30 or 40 of those packets. I keep one in the car. [For a] black-tie affair [in New York], we had to walk two blocks to the Ellis Island Ferry and I had one of those in my suitcase. Everybody is out there walking in the rain. I put that on. I was the only guy that got there dry, so that is survival -- on a small scale, but it is still survival. Especially in this world today with everything that is happening -- earthquakes and typhoons and tsunamis -- everybody should take a survival course, both on land and sea. 

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview on Tuesday. Click here for Part 2.

Motley Fool CEO and co-founder Tom Gardner owns no shares of any companies mentioned. Stock Advisor analyst Jason Moser owns shares of Amazon.com The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Amazon.com, and Netflix, creating a bull call spread position in Apple, and buying puts in Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (23)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 22, 2011, at 7:22 AM, ChipNPutt11 wrote:

    Tom, What a great book and wonderful portrayal of an absolute hero. Louie is a power of example that all Fools should come to know.

    Glad to learn that you enjoy such fine literature, it sure beats reading analysts research reports, 8-k's, 10k's and all that other stuff. I'm glad to let you review those and provide continuing sound diversified long-term investment recommendations.

    I'm glad to leave the analytics to you and spend my time living a life that Louie helped provide for all of us. Run, read, play more golf!!

    Check out Townie by Andre Dubois (sic.) good book too, a memoir.

  • Report this Comment On July 03, 2014, at 11:40 AM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Sad day. He's such a cool guy and one of the best books I've ever read.

  • Report this Comment On July 03, 2014, at 1:36 PM, NorthJoisey wrote:

    Rest in peace, Mr. Zamperini.

    And I agree, "Unbroken" is one of the best books I've ever read.

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