The Stockdale Paradox

I first read about the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. Good To Great explores how some companies are able to make the leap and become great, while other companies are not. Collins explains that the companies who went from good to great all had a similar outlook; that outlook is explained perfectly by the Stockdale Paradox. The Stockdale Paradox is a great concept for any business, team, or individual to learn. The story behind its origin and the man who the concept is named for are as compelling as implementing the concept will be in your life.

James Stockdale graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946, became a pilot by 1950, and served briefly as a Navy Test Pilot School instructor. Stockdale then served as a pilot in Vietnam, where by the end of the summer of 1965 he was nearing 200 combat missions. On September 9th, 1965 while flying back from a combat mission over North Vietnam, Stockdale’s airplane (the A-4 Skyhawk) was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was forced to eject over a small village. Stockdale suffered a broken bone in his back and a dislocated knee in the landing and was captured quickly. Eventually he was taken to Hao Lo Prison, known infamously as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he would spend 8 years. Stockdale was the highest ranking Navy officer POW (prisoner of war) during the war.

Stockdale quickly became a symbol of resistance, and was caught urging other POWs to resist also. He believed that they were there to fight a war, and the mission shouldn’t stop because they were in a prison camp. Being identified as a resistance leader lead Stockdale to be physically tortured over 15 times. He spent 2 years in leg irons, 4 years in solitary confinement, was starved, and all while being denied proper medical attention for his numerous injuries. Stockdale never gave up.

Two stories stand out among many. One is that Stockdale was told in 1969 he was going to be paraded in front of foreign journalists, as POWs were from time to time for propaganda and to show they were being treated okay (even though they were not). In response, Stockdale slashed his own scalp with a razor blade and physically beat himself with a wooden stool because he knew that his captors would not display a prisoner in that condition. Stockdale refused to be used as a pawn in his captors propaganda show and resisted by putting himself through even more physical pain. The other story is that Stockdale slit his own wrists in protest after learning that other prisoners had died during torture, and nearly died himself. He was showing his captors that he would rather die that submit to them. This act has been credited with convincing the Vietnamese to cease torturing prisoners and begin improving treatment of the captives.

Photo by Dave Wilson, Navy. “Medal of Honor recipient Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale, center, chats with guests, including Lt. Gen. Samuel J. Jaskilka, assistant commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps, right, following his award ceremony at the White House, March 4, 1976.”

For putting himself in harms way for the benefit of his fellow prisoners and continuing to lead resistance despite repeated punishment, Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor, the US Military’s highest medal. I encourage you to read more about Stockdale and the other POWs of the Hanoi Hilton for a refreshing wake up call on your own life. How many of us would be able to withstand such conditions for 8 years? Many did not make it. The Stockdale Paradox concept comes from the outlook of the survivors vs. those who died along the way.

Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale about his harrowing experience as a POW, which is recounted in Good To Great. Collins asked Stockdale: “Who did not make it?” Stockdale replies “Oh, thats easy. The optimists.” Collins questions, “The optimists? I don’t understand.” To which Stockdale responds: “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 continues: “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.” This is the Stockdale Paradox.

Global marketing agency Acceleration Partners CEO Robert Glazer writes “Ultimately, what saved Stockdale’s life was his ability to process the reality of his situation, while balancing that realism with a steadfast, optimistic belief that he would survive and return home.” Collins’s research of the companies who went from good to great shows that when faced with major crises, “On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame and a commitment to prevail as a great company, despite the enormous challenge,” writes Glazer. It appears that success for a company, individual, or prisoner of war looks similar.

Confront reality, no matter how terrible. Don’t sugar coat it. But also, never lose the belief that you will win in the end. Even though the tunnel is dark, there is light at the end. Pretending the tunnel isn’t dark, or is shorter that it actually is, won’t help you. Writer Mikle Colagrossi says “Confronting the entire brevity of your situation is instrumental for success. There’s a bit of positive visualization in there, but it needs to be counterbalanced with the thought that you can utterly fail and to put it frankly – your current existence might be absolutely miserable and hopeless. But don’t lose faith, your wildest dreams just might come true. . . hence the paradox.” Try to find a way to be brutally honest and yet maintain dreams for the future.

Susie deVille, CEO & Founder of the Innovation & Creativity Institute, writes about how facing the reality of a crisis can make everything clear. deVille says that during a particularly messy time in her life, she “… grabbed a legal pad and pen, and mapped out each and every brutal fact of (her) current situation.” Some of the things seemed impossible to overcome, and in all her notes there were no clear choices to be made. “But it was now out of my head and all stepped out in front of me. It was a good start,” writes deVille.

deVille continues: “Oddly, once I saw the scope of my challenges in their entirety, all in one place, I got a whiff of possibility for the first time in months. It had taken courage to face reality, extricate myself from the quicksand of denial, and let the veil drop. Now, standing naked and exposed, I could move into problem-solving mode.” The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is a problem and understanding the full scope of what you are confronting. While this can be difficult, seeing everything for what is really is liberates you. I love the way deVille says this realization left her feeling; “Raw, frightened, but clear minded and determined.”

This is the Stockdale Paradox. Honest, realistic, no false positivity. But also unwavering determination and optimism that in the end you will win.

-Tyson Simmons



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: