Character & Commitment: The Stockdale Paradox

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High-Trust Leaders are respected and admired for their ability to stay true to their values and purpose amid the ups and downs of business cycles and the storms of life we all face.

Character: They walk their talk; they live their values, even when tempted to sacrifice their integrity to relieve some of the pain in a storm.

Commitment: They remain focused on their mission and long-term purpose. Even when battling alligators, they remember their goal is to drain the swamp.

But there is another character skill they possess: realistic optimism.

The ability and the discipline to see the truth in every situation; the whole truth — the bad and the good. There is always both.

Vice Admiral Stockdale was a high-trust leader par excellence.  As the senior POW in Vietnam, he shouldered a nearly unimaginable burden of command. In the famous book on outstanding businesses, Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote about “The Stockdale Paradox.”

…tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda.

Walking with Collins across Stanford’s campus, Stockdale described his leadership secret:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale replied,

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The Stockdale Paradox carries an important lesson in character development, a lesson in faith and honesty: never doubt you can achieve your goals, no matter how lofty they may be and no matter how many critics and naysayers. But at the same time, always take honest stock of your current situation. Don’t lie to yourself for fear of short-term embarrassment or discomfort because such deception will come back to defeat you in the end.

Living the first half of this paradox is relatively easy since optimism really isn’t that hard. You just choose to believe it will all turn out for the best and everything that happens to you is a means to that end.

But optimism on its own can be dangerous:

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyway.’ Either way, nothing happens.” – Yvon Chouinard

We need to embrace the second half of the Stockdale Paradox to really make strides. We must combine optimism with brutal honesty and a willingness to take action.

Of course, nobody likes admitting they’re fat, they’re broke, they’ve chosen the wrong career, or their marriage is falling apart. But admitting such truths is an absolute necessity if you want to grow and improve. It might feel like you are taking a few steps backward by doing so, but view that retreat as the pull-back on a sling shot: you are just setting yourself up to make significant progress down the road.

A while back I attended a panel discussion of Vietnam POWs at NAS Pensacola that included VADM Stockdale. The moderator asked the former POWs what Stockdale’s leadership meant to them. One very tough former POW/naval aviator sitting next to Stockdale began to speak, and then overcome with emotion he could only reach over and give the admiral a long, firm squeeze on the shoulder.

That said it all.

Be a High-Trust Leader: During your next storm, confront the brutal facts while maintaining realistic optimism as you remember the Stockdale Paradox.

(October 8, 2010) USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) sails the straights of Malacca, Malaysia. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Colby K. Neal/RELEASED)