You must retain faith that you can prevail to greatness in the end, while retaining the discipline to confront the brutal facts of your current reality.
The Stockdale Paradox – Jim Collins
In Good to Great – a best-selling book on organizational leadership — Jim Collins describes The Stockdale Paradox. Some may remember Admiral James Stockdale as presidential candidate Ross Perot’s ill-suited running mate in 1992. However, political ambitions aside, Admiral Stockdale is known for outstanding leadership while held captive in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.
Collins interviewed the late Admiral Stockdale while writing Good to Great. Stockdale described the critical paradox of maintaining faith and hope while remaining deciplined and realistic present conditions, no matter how brutal. Collins was inspired, and the story crystallized his thinking about about realistic optimism as a pathway to greatness in the workplace. Stockdale’s life history reveals the source of his exemplary leadership in the prison camp.
A Philosophical Fighter Pilot
Stockdale’s maintained a sense of realistic optimism, even while being tortured and kept in isolation. He credits Epictetus, a first century Greco-Roman stoic philosopher, for providing the inspiration to maintain a strong sense of self-discipline and duty. Stockdale was a scholar of Epictetus and wrote extensively about Stoicism in his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. He also identified with Epictetus, who had a lame leg. Stockdale’s leg was maimed during ejection from his plane into enemy territory. Stockdale notes:
For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it. . . . I whispered a ‘chant’ to myself as I was marched at gunpoint to my daily interrogation.
Stockdale supported and united the other POW officers with the sticky acronym BACK US. It stood for “Don’t Bow in public; stay off the Air; admit no Crimes, never Kiss them goodbye. ‘US’ could be interpreted as United States, but it really meant ‘Unity over Self.’” Although the POW’s were broken down daily, they were inspired by Stockdale and were able to treat the next day as a new beginning. They had hardy personalities.
Hardiness – Challenge, Commitment, Control
In the 1980’s, Suzanne Kobasa conducted research based on the view that stress is a normative part of life in a world that is constantly changing. She investigated three different attributes of the hardy personality: challenge, commitment, control. Hardy people are more capable of adapting when confronted with life’s inevitable challenges and new situations. Commitment reflects commitment to self, which Kobasa says, “provides an overall sense of purpose that mitigates the perceived threat of any given stressful life event in a specific life area.” The relational definition of control reflects a hardy person’s capacity for autonomy in how they react and respond to stress – to be optimistic or to feel helpless and victimized.High Quality Connections, Grit, and Conscientiousness
Stockdale had the uncanny ability to develop high quality connections with his fellow prisoners, even in isolation. He developed an elaborate set of “finger tapping codes” which became the shared language of the prisoners. He could listen attentively, communicate affirmations, and support his fellow officers.
Stockdale imbued a sense of felt vitality, felt mutuality, and played on physiological changes, inviting the other prisoners to “be the best they can be” individually and collectively as they confronted the brutal facts of their current reality (Dutton, 2003).
In some ways, Stockdale’s hardiness may also be related to his grit and conscientiousness. Angela Duckwork’s definition of grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals parallels the diligence demonstrated byStockdale and his fellow prisoners. They were also conscientious in their self-discipline and sense of duty.
Epictetus had it right around 2000 years ago – “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., and Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kobasa, S. (1982). The hardy personality: Toward a social psychology of stress in health. In G.S. Sanders and J. Suls (Eds.). Social Psychology of Health and Illness (Environment and Health). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stockdale, J. (1995). Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Reprint ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institute Press.
Stockdale, J. (1993). Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (Hoover Essays). Presentation delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday, November 15, 1993.
Rear Admiral James Stockdale from Wikimedia