Leadership

Jim Collins, the author of international best sellers; Good to Great, Built to Last, Great by Choice and How the mighty fall. 


Stockdale Paradox: A message for uncertain times. (6.41) View on YouTube

Jim summarise Stockdale Paradox story in his book, “Good to Great”:

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military office in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty 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. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system–-after x minutes, you can say certain things–-that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth, for twenty-five letters, c doubling in for k.) At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

How on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

 

“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.”

 

Finally I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

 

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

 

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

Jim discovered that the 11 great companies they studied had all survived an existential crisis. Collins found the leadership team in each case responded with a powerful psychological duality. On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame and a commitment to prevail as a great company, despite the enormous challenge.

Jim labeled this psychological duality the Stockdale Paradox. It is most relevant especially for leaders facing enormous challenges and need to take disciplined action to persist to the end.

Embracing the duality, having the unwavering faith that they will prevail through the end AND at the same time, face the brutal facts of the current reality. 

Brian explained the concepts further in this review of James’ book. The key is to be a realistic optimist. 

Courage Under Fire by James Stockdale (13.40mins) View YouTube

–James Stockdale

“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.”

James Stockdale