“A key psychology for leading from good to great is the Stockdale Paradox: Retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Jim Collins. Good to Great. Random House, 2001, p. 88.
Anyone stuck listening to me talk about leadership in the last several years has suffered through many references to Jim Collins’s famous book, Good to Great.
I shared this short three-minute video with my student life team last week prior to our all-staff (virtual) meeting of Collins himself describing one of his key findings. Feel free to tune in, too, but I’m going to talk about it either way.
In the video Collins describes his interactions with Admiral James Stockdale, an American hero who was held and tortured as a POW in Vietnam for over seven years (and if the name sounds familiar, he was later Ross Perot’s running mate and subject of a Phil Hartman parody on SNL). Collins uses Stockdale’s horrific experiences as a POW to ask how one approaches a situation when you aren’t sure if it will ever end, and even if it will, you cannot know when.
This is how Collins describes his memory of Stockdale’s response: “You have to realize I never got depressed because I never ever wavered in my faith that not only I would get out, but I would turn being out of the camp into the defining event of my life, that in retrospect I would not trade.”
Wow. Read that one again for the full impact.
But Collins, ever the researcher, goes on to ask: “Who didn’t make it out as strong as you?”
Stockdale’s response? “Easy, it was the optimists.”
Collins was quick to point out that Stockdale’s unwavering faith that this would turn out to be the defining event of his life surely sounded optimistic, to which Stockdale emphatically replied that he was most definitely NOT optimistic. While others were sure they would be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas again, ultimately dying, as Collins described, “of a broken heart,” Stockdale never shied away from the reality of his situation.
Are you ready for this? From Admiral Stockdale, “This is what I learned. When you are imprisoned by great calamity, by great difficulty, by great uncertainty, you have to on the one hand never confuse the need for unwavering faith that you will find a way to prevail in the end with on the other hand the discipline to confront the most brutal facts we actually face.”
It is a ridiculous stretch to compare most of our situations with a POW camp, but that doesn’t stop the “Stockdale Paradox” from proving most helpful anyway—an unwavering faith that we will ultimately prevail alongside a willingness to face reality.
My boss/friend, Matt, pointed to Scripture to make this even more clear for people who will live by faith:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. – Paul, 2nd Corinthians 4: 8-9; 16-18 (NRSV)