The Stockdale Paradox – Why September is giving us false hope

5 min read by Andy Smith 12 May 2020

No amount of meticulous business planning could have prepared us for a pandemic sweeping the globe and turning our lives upside down. With no experience of anything similar in modern history, every commercial enterprise, large or small, was caught outside in the open when the COVID-19 storm broke.

Much has been written and debated about what business leaders should do – first, they must safeguard the immediate integrity of their business. Second, devise a strategy to ride out the storm. And third, emerge more robust than before.

For me, I discovered a new way of thinking to achieve this; a method that hadn’t occurred before, but which has changed my approach to StrategiQ completely. It sounds illogical because you must take two opposites to make a positive. It’s a paradox; a dichotomy of thinking that began in an unlikely place.

Introducing the Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking US officer held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp in Vietnam. From 1965 to 1973, he was tortured over 20 times and lived through unimaginable pain, physical and mental, never knowing when he might see his family again. He emerged not broken, but a strong-willed man who went on to become a vice-presidential candidate in 1992. Quite how he survived his ordeal is unthinkable, but the respected business management consultant and author, Jim Collins got to the truth of it when grilling the admiral one day. It became a feature of his book Good to Great.

Collins’ findings became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a way of thinking that we can and should apply to any challenge we face. And the current COVID-19 crisis is a prime case in point.

In a nutshell, you must retain the belief that your business will get back to normal, but at the same time, you must confront and adapt to the brutal reality of the current situation.

That’s the paradox; you know you will get through it, but you must face up to the pain.

Don’t be defeated by crushed dreams

For Stockdale, he saw other prisoners die from broken hearts. They believed they would be free and home by Christmas. As that came and passed, they instead felt sure freedom was a certainty by Easter. Then Thanksgiving. They were the optimists, but they built their hopes up only to be let down most cruelly.

In business terms, we are often encouraged to be optimists. But a bright outlook alone rarely ends well. I’ve seen how some business leaders are sure the coronavirus outbreak will be over within a few short months. When it’s not – and it won’t be – their dreams will be crushed. Their hopes will be unfulfilled. Potentially, their business will be in no fit state to carry on because they had not faced up to the worst-case scenario.

Stockdale, languishing in his prison squalor, wasn’t an optimist. Sure, he knew he would get out one day; he just didn’t know when. Instead, he focussed on the present, on the terrible reality of his situation.

Only by addressing and coming to terms with his awful predicament could he be sure that, yes, one day he would get out. Further, he knew his captivity would define him as a person and shape the rest of his life in a way that he wouldn’t trade for anything else.

It’s quite extraordinary when you think about it. Stockdale knew he would be free, but it would only shape his life for the better if he accepted and adapted to the grim reality of the present. He went on to live a full life until his death in 2005.

What does this mean for your business?

Our comfortable lives might be a world away from the horrors of the Hanoi Hilton. But in business terms, we are in a “Stockdale moment”. We are living our worst business nightmare.

But rather than sit there optimistically and do nothing because everything will be back to normal soon enough, we should all be pragmatic.

We shouldn’t be sitting here thinking “everything will be fine by September”. Because it won’t be when we get there or for a long time after.

What can we do to face the coronavirus crisis head-on? What steps can we take to focus on a new, perhaps uncomfortable way of working now, in the knowledge that we will come out of the other end?

I have taken the Stockdale Paradox on board. I have become disciplined in facing up to and addressing the COVID-19 situation head-on. I know the steps I make now, no matter how unusual or painful, will define how I and StrategiQ look when this is all over.

It’s an eye-opener, for sure. But, boy, Jim Stockdale is proof that it’s the right approach.


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