The Stockdale Paradox Revisited

As we press further into uncharted territory, this strikes me as a good time to revisit “The Stockdale Paradox.” It is helping me frame my attitude and to stay focused, and I trust it will benefit you as well.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam in 1967, was captured and spent over seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. He was beaten, tortured, and shackled for long periods in solitary confinement–and he experienced the death of many brother prisoners. While writing Good to Great, author Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale about his POW experience and brought to light a really important insight that was forged in Stockdale’s prisoner crucible.

To survive, you must simultaneously have two seemingly contradictory things:

1. Unwavering faith that you will find a way to prevail, and

2. Discipline to confront the most brutal facts.

The paradox is that you need both; one without the other is fatal.  The POW’s who were pessimists (focusing solely on their brutal reality) had nothing to live for.  The optimists convinced themselves that they would be out by Christmas…then Easter…then Thanksgiving. Eventually, their optimism was crushed, and they died of broken hearts. [Read more from Jim Collins]

In their HBR classic, “The Crucibles of Leadership,” Bennis and Thomas write, “The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” In the process of reflecting during and after his crucible, Stockdale identified skills that he used to conquer adversity and emerge stronger.

These skills–the Stockdale Paradox–may well be skills that all leaders need to practice. In fact, you could argue that they are the essence of leadership. Optimism, hope, confidence, and vision on the one hand, and relentless discipline and honest assessment of current reality on the other. The space between the two triggers creative tension that energizes us to collectively develop innovative options and paths that move us forward—and the resilience to keep us alive. This is leadership in action!

Discussion Prompts
What do you think? Is the Stockdale Paradox something that we need to commit to as leaders? Are you expressing unwavering faith that we will prevail, while also confronting the brutal facts of our current reality?  And are you teaching and developing these attributes in the people you lead or work with?