Tag Archives: jim collins

The Stockdale Paradox


“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.

Welcome back.

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)


Measuring Strength

At Riverside

I am loving the opportunity to tag along with Pepperdine’s cross country program this season as the Waves race toward the conference and regional championship meets. For those unfamiliar, although cross country appears on the surface to be an individual sport, a team’s score depends on the finish place of the top five runners on the team.¹ Therefore, a great finish by four runners can be wasted without a solid finish from runner number five.

Hang on to that thought.

I preferred to study alone in law school, but more often than not law students form study groups to help process the complex material encountered in class. The advice I remember (and now deliver) is to be careful when forming a study group because the group will proceed at the pace of the slowest student.

You are following along nicely, aren’t you? An organization is only as strong as its weakest member.

The analogy to any department, team, group, business, class, family, etc. is pretty obvious—as are the choices of what to do with this information. One option is to replace the weak with someone strong,² but often times such drastic measures are not possible, like, oh, say, a family for instance. The other option is not to be so enamored with the superstar strengths in your organization and focus on improving the weakest unit(s). That just makes sense.

What isn’t so obvious is taking this same concept and looking into the mirror, mirror on the wall.

It is hard to consider a more complex organization than an individual human being. Setting aside the astonishingly complex biology and considering only the complex amalgamation of traits, skills, interests, passions, and experiences of each person, it is interesting to consider that we as individuals are also only as strong as our weakest part.

The same lesson and same options remain for a stronger future: If possible, eject the weakness, but more likely than not, focus on making the weakest part stronger.

Locate your fifth runner and pay special attention to its training. It will determine where you finish.


¹ Wave student-athlete, Trevor Sytsma, explains this well in his excellent blog post at http://www.pepperdinesports.com/blog/2015/10/cross-country-update-trevor-sytsma-1.html.

² Jim Collins says it this way: “[L]eaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html

Personal Humility + Professional Will


My least impressive resolution for 2015 was to finally read the ESPN history book that had collected dust on my nightstand for longer than I care to guess. Mission accomplished. Once I dove in, the 832 pages didn’t take long to complete.

The story that stuck out to me was that of George Bodenheimer, who started out in the mailroom at ESPN and ended up its president. I had never heard of him. Bodenheimer is the perfect example of what Jim Collins would call a “Level 5” leader (see above). Look no further than his tiny Wikipedia page for example.

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN utilized an interview approach in its historical account of the wildly successful sports television network. Today, I simply want to share my favorite entry that describes Bodenheimer. It is from John Skipper, who came to ESPN after senior roles with companies like Disney and Rolling Stone, and who has since publication of the book succeeded Bodenheimer as ESPN president. Read it, and form your own conclusions.

George defines the culture now. Steve Bornstein [former ESPN president] was respected, admired, followed—and feared. George Bodenheimer is respected, admired, followed—and loved. George has been at his job since 1998. At some point, 1999 or 2000, he created this once-a-year strategy meeting. He gathers the top people, and what does he do? He says we as a group are going to decide our priorities as a company. And we now have this annual thing we do about shared success—it’s team-team-team. By nature, I’m a cynic and even a slight elitist—I moved to New York, I studied satire. That’s what I was studying at Columbia—eighteenth-century satire—so I’m of a sardonic turn, and I can tell you that this culture is not cynical. It’s “team.” It’s complete enthusiasm, Moonie-ism in a positive sense. People believe in it. And that priorities thing, which you can make fun of—it’s a little goofy, a little corny—we go together, we say the following four, five things are our priority. One year our priority is “Make ratings go up.” One year it was “we have to make dot com work.” So the whole company has been told, you might work in event production and operating camera and traveling around the country, but we’re also looking to you to help us figure out how to make ESPN.com work.

You get a little card. We print card with the priorities on them. You carry your card around. On the back is the mission and the company values. Really simple stuff, easy for a smarty-pants cynic who likes living in New York. But you can’t make fun of it, because it works.

There is a cult of George in our company. George would hate that. George is the most influential person in sports; he actually doesn’t care and actually doesn’t like it—he’d be happy if it went away. To the rank and file, George walks on water.

Go Big or Go Home

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood . . . . Make big plans, aim high in hope and work . . . .” – Daniel Burnham

As luck would have it, I needed a big hairy audacious goal in life and learned that that’s a thing at a higher education conference in Phoenix.

The weather was scorching hot in Phoenix, but since it was a dry heat, I believe it was technically chilly. I may be a bit fuzzy on the science. The conference was held at the swanky Arizona Biltmore where the Reagans honeymooned, Marilyn Monroe lounged by the pool, and Irving Berlin dreamed of a white Christmas, but at times I felt surrounded by my kind of people (who were taking care of the lawn). The Biltmore is also where John McCain conceded that Sarah Palin would not be the new Vice President of the United States, and that is an historic event regardless of your leanings.

Hands down, the most stimulating plenary at the conference was delivered by Jim Collins, the famed business consultant and author of classic books such as Built to Last and Good to Great. His lecture was worth even more than the two nights at the Biltmore.

Instead of recounting the twelve points of his great lecture, I will simply mention that Collins coined the acronym BHAG (bee-hag), which stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. True story. There is actually a Wikipedia entry for this concept that will save me the trouble—it lists examples such as Microsoft’s “A computer on every desk and in every home,” and Google’s “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

It is a goal that is huge and bold and captivating but not impossible.

I need one of those. I seem to have lost all of mine sometime back.

Seven years ago, I started having chest pains. Scary. Instead of sudden death, I got a new diet, a daily purple pill, and an epiphany, which is not a bad deal given the choices. The epiphany was that if my life had ended in my late thirties—halftime from the perspective of an odds maker—there was no reason to complain. It had been a good run and anything more would just be bonus.

That was a nice thought for a while, but it is mathematically ridiculous and I am just now figuring that out. You see, the odds makers would now have my life a good chunk of the way into the third quarter. Are you following me here sports fans? So I had a great first half, but either the game ended at halftime or it didn’t, and looking at the rest of my life as the bonus round is goofy math. And it is no way to play.

I have a tendency to be either the tiniest bit existentially-angsty or maybe a whole lot. When Collins made it to point number ten or so in Phoenix and declared that a BHAG was a cure for existential angst, he had my attention.

I need a big hairy audacious goal to propel me forward because coasting is, well, anticlimactic, and to risk sounding whiny, increasingly boring. And if I’m being candid and I am so there, coasting has almost proven to be depressing.

No more, I declare. The game isn’t over. I am officially back in the game, and the second half is instantly better.

Things are really starting to look up.