The Stockdale Paradox, Leadership in Crisis, and How it Relates to Your Business

Nearly a year on, the world, and in particular the United States is still embroiled in a fight against a deadly virus. We are living in a period of sustained stress and trauma. Isolation from friends, family and colleagues continues to disrupt our lives and demand adaptation to a still-evolving workplace.

So what can we learn from someone who lived through the ultimate sustained trauma? Admiral James Stockdale survived more than seven years as a POW in Vietnam, and upon returning, summed up his theories on enduring hardship in an eloquent, if paradoxical statement that may have more relevance to our current business models than would appear at first blush.

Visualizing a paradox, such as the stockdale paradox, with an Escher stairwell from Inception

To begin, let’s look at who Admiral James Stockdale was, and what has become known as The Stockdale Paradox.

What is the Stockdale Paradox?

Born in 1923, Admiral James Stockdale served as a US fighter pilot during the Vietnam conflict. When his plane was shot down in 1964, Stockdale ejected and was captured in a Vietnamese village and spent the next seven and a half years imprisoned behind enemy lines.

Upon his release, Stockdale was asked about how he survived such a long ordeal when so many did not. A student of Stoic philosophy, Stockdale attributed much of his survival to the principals of self-control, fortitude, and acceptance espoused by Stoics.

Put in his own words, Stockdale described it thus:

 “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.”

Admiral James Stockdale

This deceptively simple statement was later dubbed The Stockdale Paradox. And while we are fortunately far from experiencing the same harrowing circumstances as prisoners of war, we may find it helpful to embrace the Admiral’s delicately balanced perspective as our organizations navigate this prolonged period of abnormality.  

FAITH: Clearly define a mission, and align your team

A key for successfully maintaining optimism in the face of uncertainty and challenging circumstances is having something bigger than yourself to believe in. As Admiral Stockdale noted, for some POWs, this was their religion, patriotism, or simply a sense of duty to their job. In a professional context, a strong, clear mission, around which your full team is aligned, is critical for keeping morale up in difficult times.

The ImageThink Method(TM) continuum

At ImageThink, we lead our clients through a series of visual exercises tied to the first two phases of The ImageThink Method™, our proprietary framework for leading initiatives and tackling big projects, to help them define a strong mission. Clients evaluate the current state of affairs (SCAN), identify clear goals, and align (ENGAGE) the team around supporting those goals with clear action steps.

By visually mapping out what they already know, our clients can see where they have gaps, and where they can make improvements.

REALITY: Visualize and communicate an ideal future state….don’t forget the sharks!

Part of pursuing the SCAN and ENGAGE phases with our clients, usually involves leveraging one of our favorite visual metaphors, the “Bridge to the Future.” By drawing out the current state, we can help our partners envision an ideal future state. But as the Stockdale Paradox reminds us, an idealized vision of the future alone can’t sustain us through hardship.

Visual metaphor and a current state, future state map as it relates to the Stockdale Paradox

When he was asked who did not survive the POW camps, Stockdale replied,

“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.”

Admiral James Stockdale

The stark reality is a critical element to any business strategy, too. In ImageThink’s case, it takes the form of the Sharks under the bridge. By identifying these threats, as well as challenges and reality in the Current State, any member of the team can evaluate at a glance how it started and how it’s going.

Another Paradox: goals are important, but focus on mastery

While most of you reading this appreciate the power of visuals for identifying and mapping out potential solutions, you may be wondering how to take the theory and make it practical. If you’ve read our posts detailing The ImageThink Method™, you’re already familiar with the PLAN, EXCITE, and IMPLEMENT Phases.

charting a path from A to B, and focusing on the process and commitment, rather than metrics and results.

Benchmarks are important. Knowing what KPIs will be measured is a necessary step. However, in identifying and visualizing action steps and tactics, a critical element is not to tie success only to results and metrics, but to make the actions themselves repeatable. Think of it in terms of New Year’s resolutions. Rather than setting a goal of losing 10 lbs, a lot of people find more success by setting a goal of working out 4 times per week.

This way, if the benchmarks that are set aren’t quite on the money (too easily attainable, or too far out of reach), the project isn’t abandoned. Success, at any pace, can be measured, and the work can continue in perpetuity, or tactics can be changed. Put another way, rather than assuming he would be freed by Christmas, or Easter, or his next birthday, Admiral Stockdale focused on what he needed to do to get through each day, and gradually got better at getting by. His case was extreme, but focusing on small, manageable, and repeatable commitments can go a long way to achieving tangible success.

Leveraging the Stockdale Paradox and Leading the Charge in 2021

Need a bit of help finding your own balance between optimism and reality in 2021? Seeking a vision of what to do now, after a nearly a year of innovating, reimagining, and pivoting? Let ImageThink help paint a picture of what your 2021, 2022, and beyond could look like.

Click here to schedule a demo today, or read more about The ImageThink Method™ here.

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