Confront the Brutal Facts

The news from the financial world has been brutal. Even those who had felt insulated from the turmoil are worrying.

Never has Jim Collins’ Good to Great been more relevant. He said that great leaders embrace the Stockdale Paradox. It’s the ability to remain resolutely faithful that you will prevail, while at the same time confronting the brutal facts of a situation.

Admiral James Stockdale

The Stockdale Paradox derives from the life of the late Adm. James Stockdale (image at right). He was a leader of the American POWs held in Vietnam (not unlike another fellow who is in the news these days), tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment. He came home in 1973, and was a hero. In researching his book, Collins asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out. “That’s easy,” said Stockdale. “The optimists.”


Stockdale explained that the optimists would say, “We’re getting out by Christmas.” When they didn’t, they would die of a broken will and a broken heart. By contrast, Stockdale would acknowledge that getting home by Christmas wouldn’t happen – but he remained hopeful. He did come home, to inspire others, and even to run as vice president with Ross Perot in 1992 (He may have been over his head in that adventure, but it does not nullify his legacy).

The financial crisis today will be solved by those who embrace this paradox.

So could the greatest management challenges in your association. I used it this past week.

We have a web project that has been chronically running behind deadline. We met last week to look at the facts of the project, while avoiding the blame game. We concluded that this project plan, as designed, was dead. We recast our plans, without abandoning our dreams for it. We assigned resources realistically, with clear bottom line conditions. We will watch it like a hawk, and will not delude ourselves if it’s going off course. Sure – the facts were brutal, and more than a little shocking. But I’m sure we made the right choice.

Where can you apply the Stockdale Paradox?