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One of My Favorite Lessons in Leadership

By June 14, 2014 March 31st, 2020 No Comments

A game changer in leadership happened when Good to Great by Jim Collins was published. It immediately captivated organizations everywhere. The ideas are pure, the lessons simple, the outcomes tangible and measurable. Every leader and aspiring leader has read Good to Great. If you haven’t, then you should.

There are many profound ideas in the book. One of them captivated me when I read it and I have repeated the ideas over and over not only to leaders, but to anyone within any organization, educational or otherwise, that desires to make a positive and lasting change for themselves or their own experience in their job. The idea that captivated me was the Stockdale Paradox.

From Collins, Good to Great, p 83-84:

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military officer 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. …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.” 

Stockdale survived to return to the United States and had a distinguished career as philosopher at Stanford until his death in 2005. Stockdale’s stories of his years in captivity are at best depressing but his story ends jubilantly with his release and return to his family and country.

Collins wanted to know how Stockdale survived. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” said Stockdale. He went onto make the statement leading to the paradox:

From Collins, Good to Great, p. 85

[From Admiral 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.”

So many times in organizations there are those who simply spend their time hoping for a positive outcome. The optimists continue to wish and hope for positive outcomes to present dilemmas. Others keep doing the same things the same way hoping for a different outcome with no regard as to their “present reality.” On many occasions I have reminded colleagues that hope is not a great strategy for improvement or success.

Others spend their days complaining about their circumstances and lamenting on why those circumstances will keep organizations circling around the toilet bowl of the status quo. They become a fellowship of the miserable and take their message to anyone who will listen. These folks feel powerless to do anything about their present circumstances but have no faith that the end could be a significant improvement to their present experience.

Rarely, however, do I come across a person who has embodied the Stockdale paradox. It’s acceptable to confront your present reality however negative or hopeless it seems. But to do so in the absence of your vision and belief in the positive end of the story will lead you nowhere. It is only the paradox of the contemplation of reality mixed with the faith in the positive outcome of the end that will see you through and subsequently, your organization.

It is virtually impossible to subscribe to the tenants of continuous improvement in an organization and not subscribe to the Stockdale Paradox. Living your life on one side of the paradox or the other will not move you or your organization toward its goals. It is only when you live within the Paradox that success is probable and plausible.

Your willingness to subscribe to the Stockdale Paradox will always assist you in moving your organization forward to achieve whatever goals and dreams you desire.

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