The Stockdale Paradox

I just got off a 7 a.m. Zoom call that HBS had set up for alumni. The Dean, two faculty members, and over 2,000 alumni were on the call, the first session in a series called “Crisis Management for Leaders.”

In the discussion, one of the professors, Dutch Leonard, recommended that leaders should know about The Stockdale Paradox. It’s named after James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam in brutal conditions. The Paradox states that leaders should do two things:

    • Be brutally honest about a current situation
    • Be optimistic based on facts

Professor Leonard mentioned that people can tell pretty quickly if their leader is in denial or engaging in happy talk. And, once found out, the leader’s credibility is shot.

He also mentioned that a positive outlook is important, too, but needs to be based on facts. Stockdale mentioned that optimists tended to be among the first to die in the prison camp. They held onto unfounded beliefs, such as “We’ll be out by Christmas,” and when those things didn’t happen, they were crushed.

So, the key is to balance both realism and hope.

Professor Leonard concluded his talk by encouraging leaders to invest in self-care. He has long studied disasters and crisis management. He says that the current coronavirus scare will be a very long marathon, as there are no silver-bullet answers, and we still don’t know what we don’t know about the virus.

So, whether we are heading organizations or families or both, my hope is that we are all investing in ourselves to be strong, positive, and innovative for those who rely on us.

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