I sat quietly listening to the group of leaders describe the impending threats to their business in the shifting global marketplace, and how several start-up firms in emerging markets were actively disrupting the legacy business models. As they mapped out the implications of the latest digital play on their portfolio, it became painfully clear that the firm was woefully behind in their embracing of new technology, and even less agile in leadership mentality and the ability to change at the speed of the market. And yet, there was a passion and a dedication in this group of leaders that I did not sense in every group. It was a combination of quiet acceptance of their current reality and a fierce faith that they would triumph in the end. That energy reminded me of the so-called Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking Naval officer held prisoner in Vietnam.
James Stockdale was held captive in solitary confinement for almost eight years during the Vietnam War, tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and yet he never lost faith through his living hell that he would ultimately get out and prevail in the end. As he shares in Jim Collins’ classic book, Good to Great, “I never doubted 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.”
While Stockdale had profound, incredible faith, he did not describe himself as an optimistic. Sadly, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive, as they were the ones who said “We’ll be out by Christmas” and then Christmas would come and go. This would go on for years and they died of broken hearts.
Conversely, Stockdale faced the reality of his situation and still held the deep conviction that he would triumph in the end. He knew he was in dire circumstances and life-threatening danger, but refused to let his Spirit be beaten down. He became resourceful and created a tapping code so he and his prisonmates could communicate with each other and a progress system that helped them deal with the torture at hand. Hidden in letters he wrote to his wife, he embedded intelligence information.
As Jim Collins shares, that precious balance is what helps us face adversity and overcome the odds:
You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
AND at the same time…
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
It’s a deep knowing that all is well, no matter how things look right now.
Listening to that group of leaders that day, it challenged me to look more deeply at the current reality I was facing in my own life, and then deepen my faith in triumphing in the end. While I felt overwhelmed and a bit daunted by looking at the cold, hard facts of a situation that seemed immovable, as I accepted that current reality with honesty and humility, I found a release of creative energy for moving forward, and began to identify ideas to act on my faith. Lit up by that vision of success, I took my first step forward later that day. Truth and faith truly have the power to transform, if we allow ourselves to surrender to them fully.