How the Stockdale Paradox Can Make You a Better Leader

by Rebecca on December 17, 2012

admiral_james_b_stockdale1-210x300I first learned of Admiral James Stockdale in Good to Great, by Jim Collins.  In the book, Collins and his team were trying to find common traits of “great” companies who had outperformed “good” companies over at least a 15-year period.  One of the common factors they found among great companies is they embraced the Stockdale paradox.

The Stockdale paradox is named after Admiral James Stockdale who was held as a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.  Stockdale was tortured and beaten during this ordeal and never had any reason to believe he would ever be able to leave, let alone see his wife again.  But through it all, he never lost faith.  “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Here is the paradox:  While Stockdale had unbelievable faith that things would work out, he said that it was always the most optimistic of his fellow POW’s who actually were the ones who failed to make it out alive.  “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.”

What were the optimists missing?  They failed to confront the reality of their situation.  They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away.   Certainly that never happens in your hospital, right??

Stockdale approached a beyond difficult situation with a very different mind-set.  He accepted the reality of his situation, and rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of other prisoners.  He created a tapping code the prisoners could use to communicate with each other.  He developed a milestone system to help all of the prisoners deal with the torture they had to endure.

Collins and his team observed a similar mind-set in the good-to-great companies and thus named it the Stockdale paradox:

 You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND AT THE SAME TIME you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The key to this is addressing BOTH parts.  I think most of us are natural optimists (or we would probably not be business owners,) and we believe that all things will work themselves out, BUT we CANNOT afford to over look problems and problem people who are in our hospitals.

We are busy people juggling many daily demands. If we want to achieve a high level of success, we need to not only remain optimistic, but also remain brutally honest, with a willingness to take action when things are not working in our hospitals (or our personal lives for that matter.)

The Stockdale paradox can be a difficult principle to embrace, but remember, it is one of the few factors that can make your hospital go from a good hospital to a GREAT hospital.

Does the Stockdale paradox make sense to you, and are you willing to embrace it in your hospital?

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