I have often been asked what I think my best trait as a leader is. My answer sometimes surprises people. I have the ability to look reality in the face, no matter how daunting that reality is, no matter how much bad news that reality may hold.
Some of this ability is a matter of personality traits, but most of it is the example of a man I admire: Admiral Jim Stockdale.
Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking US military officer to be captured and held in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. He was tortured viciously more than twenty times during his imprisonment from 1965 to 1973.
Perhaps equal to his physical torment was the emotional abuse. He had no rights. There was no date set for his release. He did not know if he would live or die. He never knew for certain if he would see his family again.
In the face of his horror, Stockdale lived out a set of principles that so sustained him they have come to be known as the “Stockdale Paradox.” Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, interviewed Stockdale and captured the heart of this paradox for us all. He recounts that the Admiral described his attitude in the following words:
“I 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.”
When Collins asked the Admiral who didn’t make it out of the POW camp, Stockdale answered, “Optimists.” He explained that optimists always had a belief system that prevented them from looking hard truths in the face. “We’re getting out by Christmas,” they would say and without any basis in fact. Such empty hopes cushioned them from reality and made optimists weak in the face of daily reality.
To wake them up, Stockdale would yell, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”
Stockdale survived. He transcended. He ultimately was able to say he was glad for what he endured given what it produced in his life. Yet he would not have survived, he said, unless he had been willing to confront the most brutal facts of his reality—every day, all the time.
You see the lesson. Easy optimism is escapism. The Stockdale Paradox is confidence in ultimate victory but at the price of facing cold, brutal facts as they come.
I’ve learned from my observation of great leaders and from my study of history that victory comes at the price of embracing what I call “situational reality.” I have faith in ultimate victory because I live for a God whom I believe grants that victory. Yet there is nothing about my faith that promises to deliver me from suffering, from hardship, from brutal reality. So, I look these forces dead in the eye. I set myself to endure. I am careful to keep illusion and myth far from me. These only get in the way of what makes for true victory.
I want you to do the same. Look at your life and your world. Is there any place you’ve allowed optimistic myth or escapism to keep you from facing painful, perhaps brutal truth? Stop it! Explode the myths. Look hardship in the face. March on in confidence of ultimate victory.
I recommend Admiral Stockdale’s books to you. I recommend Jim Collins’ Good to Great. Most of all, I urge you to sit quietly soon and examine your life. Root out myth. Root out escapism. Root out cowardice. Face the truth, no matter how terrible. Cling to confidence in ultimate victory but at the price of standing down every hard fact of your experience.