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To Win In 2022, Remember The Stockdale Paradox

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The concept, coined by author Jim Collins in his bestselling classic Good to Great, is an essential tool for our current moment.

As 2022 dawns with the biggest spike in Covid cases yet seen, perhaps it’s time for CEOs and senior leaders to rethink the crisis. I’m not talking about vaccines, or masks, or back to the office strategies anything like that. I’m talking about bolstering your mental health and your team’s mental health.

I’m talking about embracing the Stockdale Paradox.

Over the holiday, I was thinking a lot about the concept, coined by author Jim Collins in his bestselling classic Good to Great. It stems from a life-changing conversation Collins had one afternoon with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking U.S. officer held prisoner during the Vietnam War.

Repeatedly tortured during nearly eight years in captivity, Stockdale survived it all, despite unimaginable hardships and no sense of when his privations would end. How, Collins wondered, did he do it? How did he find a way through?

As Collins recounts in the book, when he got a chance to ask Stockdale those questions, Stockdale told him that he “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.”

So, Collins asked, who didn’t make it out?

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Stockdale. “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.”

Sound familiar?

In normal times, the uncanny optimism exhibited by so many business leaders I know is a tremendous benefit. It bucks them up, it lets them take the kinds of risks they need to build a successful business in the first place.

But in Covid times, I’ve come to see it can also be a dangerous blindspot. Not because it creates some kind of health risk or puts a company in economic jeopardy. But because, in a situation that has proven to be beyond anyone’s control, one that has exceeded the duration and imagination of nearly everyone except the most pessimistic among us, the continued belief that the end is just around each and every corner is a psychological bear trap—not just for them, but for their teams.

Is Omicron—as at least one eternal optimist I spent time with over the holiday told me repeatedly—the last gasp of Covid? Maybe. Is it not as bad as many first feared? Maybe. Is the media making too big a deal of it? Maybe. Is it just “Omnicold” as one company president with a large operation in Europe told me definitively? Again, maybe.

The brutal fact, as Collins might put it, is this: We don’t know. No one knows. It’s out of our control. It always has been. But Covid itself isn’t what’s getting to so many of us—it’s the continued trashing of our best hopes for escape by Easter, by summer, by Christmas. Expectation and disappointment taxing our staffs, taxing us. I see it in our company, you see it in yours.

As we head into our third year of Covid, perhaps it’s time to get the team together and embrace a new way of thinking: We don’t know what will happen next, or how long this will last, and it doesn’t matter. We will get through it, step by step, day by day, by coming together and dealing with what’s in front of us, in the same way Stockdale did, under much worse circumstances than anything we’re facing today.

“This is a very important lesson,” Stockdale tells Collins. “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.”

Welcome to 2022.


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