Home All Faith, Fear, and Motivation – The Back Story of The Stockdale Paradox

Faith, Fear, and Motivation – The Back Story of The Stockdale Paradox

written by John Yeager 11 April 2009

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

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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.epictetus.jpg

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

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Dave Shearon 13 April 2009 - 10:28 am

Aiee! John, this article was very helpful. I read Good to Great years ago and found it very insightful and helpful in thinking about organizational leadership, especially for school systems. I’m glad you addressed this point. I think Collins quotes Stockdale as answering the question, “Who didn’t make it?” with, “The optimists – those who thought we’d be out by Christmas.” I’ve seen you quote another effective leader, Winston Churchill, for “For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.” The concept of flexible, pragmatic, realistic optimism makes clear what kind of optimist Churchill was, and also illuminates that unrealistic, impractical, ungrounded optimism does not work – as Gen. Stockdale noted. Thanks again!

Leanrainmakingmachine 13 April 2009 - 11:36 am

Fav quote from Churchill: “…..We shall never surrender……”
But, it was delivered in the context of Dunkirk –thus,acknowledging strategic retreat…….
So, he was a gritty, optimistic, realist to be sure, albeit perhaps a bit too in love with the spirits…

Kathryn Britton 13 April 2009 - 12:19 pm

I get impatient with discussions about whether optimists are more or less realistic than pessimists because it seems like too many different ways of being are lumped under each label. That’s why I love Sandra Schneider’s article on realistic optimism — not just for its title.

Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist. 56, 3, 250-263.

I wrote a summary of the main points for my blog — with a couple of examples — for people who can’t access the paper.


Jeff D 14 April 2009 - 9:16 pm

What is a good rule for when to resolve fuzziness versus relying upon optimism? Did that make sense?
Let’s assume that optimism works best when supported by evidence, wouldn’t it be reasonable to suggest that clearing up the resolution on problems would help determine optimism’s efficacy?
Examples: find out why that officemate didn’t say hi to you in the morning, examine the lump to see if it is cancerous, talk to the engineer about why the plane’s wings appear to be missing some bolts. It is easier to dispute a cognition if there is ample evidence supporting your argument.

Kathryn Britton 15 April 2009 - 12:50 pm

I think you are pointing out that even fuzzy knowledge has a range from deficit to excess, so I go for pragmatic — taking the probability of something going wrong into account. Optimists tend to get checkups and take the lump to be examined — a reasonable way to deal with fuzzy knowledge about a threat with a reasonably high probability. But then there are people who see threats and questions everywhere, even about things with a very low probability of occurring. You might be the one to go down in a plane with a missing bolt in the wing some time, but looking forward, the probability is very low. If you think of it as a cost/benefit analysis, there’s always a cost of worrying and seeking information. Does the probability of positively affecting the future (which would be reasonably high in the lump case and very low in the bolt question case) justify the effort?

As far as why your officemate didn’t say hi, that’s closer to fuzzy meaning, where you have interpretative latitude. Your officemate may not even know if you ask. Pragmatism plays into choosing interpretations as well. If you can’t know the exact answer, why not select an interpretation that leaves you in a good place?

So much of this stuff is not cut and dried. Judgment required!

Jeff D 16 April 2009 - 5:19 pm

Regarding probabilities: I have a friend who worries a lot more than I do about things I think are not probable. She has PTSD and obsessively checks if, for example, the house door is locked. I’m talking checks it 6-10 times and frets about things that I find outlandish. For example, she’ll worry that travelling outside her small town she’ll be murdered. Not just good old fashion gunslinging murder either. She thinks that someone will throw a ball of flaming pitch into her car while she waits at a stoplight. The flames will engulf her and she’ll thrash all over until she perishes horribly. I asked her, what are the odds and she replied, very good. She bought a gun to protect herself from criminals. “When you add up all the bad things that can happen to you, the odds are great that you’ll get one of the following: mugged, raped, vandalized, robbed, beaten, etc”. When we talk about probabilities, as Reivich has suggested in her book about resilience, the probabilities are merely guesses, not actual statistical odds.

How would you convince someone who truly believes 100 percent that their interpretation of the world is accurate?

I think pessimistic misinterpretation of the world around us causes so much pain and steals so much of the positive. Yet who can say that an event is 1 in 10,000 or 1 in 10,000,000 without real data? Probability is itself fuzzy because of the fog of war inherent to life. Change one important variable and you’ve changed the probability. Maybe your thoughts about Pollyanna’s Glad Game are embedded in guessing odds for something occuring. Basically part of Reivich & Shatte’s disputing consists of making up cheerful but imaginary odds and pretending they represent the world around us.

So maybe self-talk doesn’t really need anything to do with objective reality to boost mood. It just has to be convincing.


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