Resilience is a balance of optimism and realism
What can we learn from the “Stockdale Mindset”?
You may have heard of Admiral James Stockdale. He was an American Navy Aviator with a legendary mindset – and he needed it. He was the highest-ranking US officer ever to be detained in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton”, a hellish prisoner of war camp in Vietnam. Over his 8 year stay, Stockdale was tortured and interrogated. Unimaginable physical and mental pain was inflicted upon him and I am sure he spent many of those long days wondering if he would ever experience freedom and see his family again. However, he was not broken. He always believed he would make it out, and when he did, he emerged as a strong-willed man who also went on to become a vice-presidential candidate.
Stockdale has been widely quoted as saying “I never wavered in my faith — not only that I would get out, but that I would turn it into the defining event of my life that, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Blind optimism? Quite the opposite. The key to the “Stockdale mindset” was balance – a belief that he would survive and regain his freedom while also remaining completely cognizant of his current position. This became known as the ‘Stockdale Paradox’.
He recognised that optimism needed to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality; “The optimists. 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.”
Stories of survival from unimaginable hardship perpetuate a myth – you are either mentally strong or you are not. In reality, mental strength can be learned, trained and developed.
Here’s our harsh reality. Fast forward to today and the parallels are easy to see. We live in a brutal time – economically, mentally and socially. It’s as near to a disaster as many of us will come close to, and no matter how you view this moment or how you refer to it (please don’t say unprecedented), the uncertainty and roller coaster of emotions will scar us for some time. We really don’t know what the new normal will be, when it will arrive and if it’ll be what we want when it does get here.
None of us really know when the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, we will probably have to live with it one way or another for years to come, but it does not need to define us. Humans have persevered and overcome some huge challenges during our approximate 200,000 years of existence and if we truly look after each other and maintain our spirit of togetherness, we will overcome this.
If you’ve been around awhile, this won’t be your first rodeo. We’ve all had a few ups and downs over the last few decades, economy-wise and in that regard, this is just another trying time. Although, of course, this time is a little different. It’s got all the factors required to be a traumatic turning point in modern human history, one that’s destined to reverberate for many years to come and which has the potential to radically alter many people’s lives, communities, businesses and mindsets. And possibly politics, but I’ll leave that well alone!
Rather than sink in a sea of despair, we need to ride this roller coaster, take encouragement where we can and remain hopeful, while also recognising the harsh realities of current life. Easier to say, than do, I appreciate, but what is the alternative?
The challenge is to focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. A balance between acceptance of our reality with the accountability to contribute what we can.
So what do we do? As leaders we need to step-up and lead by example, as people we need to demonstrate what makes us good – be empathetic and show appreciation for others, be willing to help and always be kind. Do something for someone else, you’ll feel far better for it. We also need to ‘keep it real’.
Reach out to friends, family and colleagues, ask R U OK and try to do something kind every day for someone else.
In the area in which I work, Technology and Digital, there is plenty to be positive about. I am busier than ever and plenty of organisations are adopting a Stockdale-like approach; they are making optimistic and constructive moves, although doing so at a slower pace with perhaps an increased degree of scrutiny, mindful that agility and adaptability are more important than ever.
As a candidate you need to remain optimistic but appreciate that decision making has become more complex and the old ways do not necessarily still apply. Ensure that every conversation and interaction is of high quality and remain positive. Resilience is a balance of optimism and realism.
Your day, like Admiral James Stockdale’s, WILL come.