James Bond Stockdale (great name . . . A real James Bond) was Vice Admiral and one of the most highly decorated officers in U.S. Naval history.
He is perhaps most known for his Vice Presidential candidacy alongside Texas billionaire, Ross Perot in the 1992 election.
But there is so much more to the story of Stockdale.
While serving in the Vietnam War as a Naval pilot, Stockdale found himself caught behind enemy lines and survived as a P.O.W. for seven years. To say he was tortured would be an understatement.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins profiles Stockdale and identifies the next step of enduring greatness (Disciplined Thought) through what he calls the “Stockdale Paradox.”
The paradox, according to Collins, is to “Retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
In an interview with Collins, Stockdale stated: “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 Vietnam, he replied: “Oh, that’s easy, 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.”
Stockdale then added: “This is a very important lesson. 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.”
As a leader it is sometimes easy to ignore the truth . . . The brutal facts.
In fact, good leaders usually aren’t interested in the truth. They are simply longing for calm seas.
But not the great ones. Great leaders foster an environment for truth telling. They are disciplined in their thinking and seek to understand their current reality, no matter how ugly it might be.
Great leaders build an environment of trust and communication. They are open to ideas and input from others on the team.
And when things are stagnate or even declining, great (Level 5) leaders take responsibility for the reality (personal humility) and bring their best (professional will) to the table.
Why not take an inventory of your leadership as you begin a new year?
Never loose hope that you will prevail in the end. But at the same time, don’t ignore the brutal facts.
Greatness is a choice; not something you luck into or maintain because of past successes.
Live by the Stockdale Paradox and you will be on your way toward greatness.
Randy is an author, speaker, executive coach, and the CEO of InteGREAT Leadership. He invests his time encouraging leaders around the world.