Lessons from Admiral Stockdale

These are very unsettling times. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world, the country, the state and all of our communities very hard. Maybe you know someone, maybe a loved one, that didn’t survive the virus. I have been very fortunate thus far in that I haven’t known anyone that has become a victim of the virus.

We possibly haven’t yet seen the worst. The virus may have receded to some degree (and doctors know more about it and how to better treat those with it), but we don’t know if there will be a re-occurrence in the fall or winter. We will not be in the clear until there is an effective vaccine or effective treatment readily available and distributed. Equally important, we are just starting to experience the severe economic and societal repercussions of the COVID pandemic. Economic recovery will likely prove to be a very long road back. We are not sure what impacts the COVID pandemic will have on us, our businesses, or our lives, and what changes may result. The future is as uncertain as I have ever known.

I was thinking about the future and how to cope with the present when I came across a story on Rear Admiral James Stockdale that I thought was pertinent to our situation today. The story is from an interview of Admiral Stockdale by Jim Collins that is included in Collins’ outstanding management book, Good to Great.

Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking US military officer held prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the Vietnam War. From 1965 to 1973, Stockdale was tortured at least 15 times, lived out the war with no prisoner rights, with no set release date, and with no certainty as to whether he would even survive or see his family again.

One of the first questions Collins asked in his interview was how the Admiral dealt with those eight years—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors. The Admiral answered, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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.”

“Who didn’t make it?” Collins asked. “Oh, that’s easy,” said Stockdale. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” Collins said, now confused, given what Stockdale had said just moments 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.”

Then, after a long pause, Stockdale said, “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 may be.”

“To this day,” Collins wrote, “I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

Admiral Stockdale wrote books on courage and leadership, including Courage Under Fire and In Love and War. He was obviously a fighter. He refused to compromise. He refused to give in, regardless of the cost. He disfigured himself with a stool and a razor, so his image could not be used to portray him as a well-treated prisoner of war. He attempted suicide because he was scared of being weak and giving up the secrets of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to the enemy.

In his summary, Collins writes, “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.”

How then does the Stockdale Paradox, a business principle, relate personally to all of us in these days of quarantine, disorganized businesses, disrupted plans and possibly health challenges? How do we maintain through the COVID-19 crisis? The paradox offers this insight: Instead of saying optimistically, “It’s going to be over by such and such a date,” and wasting the days and months ahead of us because this situation can’t last long, we should rather face the harsh reality that no one knows when the end will be.

We can’t allow the situation to destroy our will. We must confront the brutal consequences of the disease with discipline and resolve that with God’s help and an absolute faith we will prevail in the end. We have the opportunity to turn the experience into a defining event of our lives, which, in retrospect, we would not trade.

Hopefully, this is a worthwhile lesson from an American hero. I hope you have a good month. Stay strong and safe.