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What the Stockdale paradox tells us about crisis leadership

The Stockdale Paradox and survival psychology contain wisdom for how leaders can manage the coronavirus crisis, according to Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams.

Published: Dec 24, 2020 09:30:35 AM IST
Updated: Dec 24, 2020 11:22:08 AM IST

What the Stockdale paradox tells us about crisis leadershipImage: Shutterstock

“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.” — Admiral James Stockdale.

As the world continues to struggle with the coronavirus outbreak, leaders around the world are reporting that their teams--or themselves--have crashed into a wall of demotivation and despair.

The Stockdale Paradox, made famous in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great, and the related discipline of survival psychology shine a light on the present moment and contains wisdom for how leaders can manage the unrolling crisis.

To review the origins of this project, we asked 600 global CEOs across a variety of industries what concerns were keeping them awake at night. Their topics ranged widely, but a handful of overarching mental tasks emerged: Comprehend complex, rapidly changing circumstances accurately, and respond to those circumstances keeping both immediate and long-term goals in mind.

One respondent summed up the challenge in a particularly apt way: “Shifting existing organizational structures from ‘peacetime’ value creation to ‘wartime/survival’ in a very short period of time … As CEOs in this crisis, we have no option but to become the wartime CEO, however ill-equipped or prepared we are.”

This is where Admiral Stockdale comes in. psychology shine a light on the present moment and contains wisdom for how leaders can manage the unrolling crisis.

What is the Stockdale Paradox?
Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years. Before meeting with the legendary soldier and statesman, Collins read Stockdale’s memoir and found its grim details hard to bear, despite his knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. Collins wondered, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?” (Emphasis in the original.)

When he posed that question to the admiral, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins asked him about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. “The optimists,” he replied. “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 … 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 formulation became known as the Stockdale Paradox. The admiral elaborated further on the concept when, at a West Point graduation, he was asked if he dwelt on the end of his imprisonment to sustain him, or if he lived day to day?

“I lived on a day-to-day basis. … [M]ost guys thought it was really better for everybody to be an optimist. I wasn't naturally that way; I knew too much about the politics of Asia when I got shot down. I think there was a lot of damage done by optimists; other writers from other wars share that opinion. The problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don't work out.”

How does it apply? (or, Why there is no “normal” to come back to)
Your state, industry, organization—or unconscious mind—may be pinning hopes on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity. But to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. The possibility remains that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. Doing so will mean changing elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.

Already, the follow-on effects of the virus are enough to ensure there will be no normal to return to, as this incomplete list indicates:

  •     Excess fatalities (higher death counts than normal, even excluding COVID-19 deaths)
  •     Mental health crises
  •     Secondary health problems from neglect/postponement of routine/preventative care
  •     Mass unemployment
  •     Dining, entertainment, arts, tourism industries—the whole experiential economy—devastated.
Further, the pandemic is playing out against a backdrop of extreme economic, political, social, and meteorological instability. The Black Lives Matter protests that began in the United States in late May and spread worldwide have thrown another massive change agent into the equation. Meanwhile, globalization itself is under threat:

“Globalization describes a world economy increasingly integrated under a common set of rules and principles.” wrote Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, in a personal correspondence. “We’re now experiencing the beginnings of an unwind, primarily because of a growing divergence in the rules and principles that major participants in the global economy operate by. The three most powerful economic actors in the world—the United States, China, and Europe—are growing further apart in their economic strategies, and that's going to become increasingly obvious as we see how they act under unusual stress.

No one knows the end of this story.

Wisdom converges
The Stockdale Paradox—have faith, but confront reality—can be seen in slightly different forms in many cultures.

Stockdale himself was a follower of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who were noted for their concern with understanding reality correctly and shaping one’s response to it optimally. The maxim of Epictetus, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens,” has similarities to both Buddhist doctrine and the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer. (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”). Therapy techniques such as radical acceptance similarly emphasize the point of letting go of desires and beliefs about what should be and seeing reality as it is.

These approaches do not maintain that people should not try to change external conditions, nor that we should have no emotional responses to them. People are neither sheep nor robots. In the words of Marsha Linehan, the founder of radical acceptance: “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things ... You can’t change anything if you don’t accept it, because if you don’t accept it, you’ll try to change something else that you think is reality.”

And while Stoicism may colloquially refer to repressing emotion, such repression was never part of original Stoic doctrine. And neither emotionlessness nor constant positivity are a hallmark of emotional adjustment during crisis. “In general, resilient people have intensely negative reactions to trauma,” writes Emily Esfahani Smith. “They experience despair and stress, and acknowledge the horror of what’s happening. But even in the darkest of places, they see glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustains them.”

How does mechanisms of survival work?
Why do so many wisdom traditions converge on this basic paradox? The discipline of survival psychology—the study of how people react in disasters—may hold a clue. Psychologist John Leach has spent his career studying survival.

“We are all day-to-day survivors. We are alive today because from childbirth our behaviour has adapted to our own particular environment,” Leach writes. “The danger arises when we are forced outside of our adapted environment. This suggests that there are two types of survival behaviour: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic survival is supported by our daily, regular, routine behaviours within our normative environment. Extrinsic survival refers to those new behaviours we need to survive in an environment or situation not previously experienced: from a shipwreck to a kidnapping, from a fire in an office block to an airliner crash in the jungle.”

Part of the exhaustion common now is that our intrinsic survival mechanisms—such basic behaviors as how to enter a building, or bring in the mail, or greet a friend—require conscious thought in a way they have not since toddlerhood. The services and businesses that facilitated our lives—childcare, dry cleaning, the coffee shop on the way to work, gyms, housecleaners—are shuttered or more difficult to access. Masks must be found and worn and cleaned. Simple conversations require managing new technologies and protocols. Even walking down the street requires a level of hypervigilance not required in even the most dangerous neighborhood.

Research by Leach and others indicates that people who survive disasters are able to regain cognitive function quickly after the event, assess their new environment accurately, and take goal-directed action to survive within it. This is the balance that the Stockdale Paradox facilitates: the realism to let go of intrinsic survival mechanisms and the deep-seated faith to learn the new ones.

Applying survival psychology to the current crisis may be extending the mandate of the discipline—the business leaders who are our reading audience are unlikely to face crises of literal, physical survival. However, the pattern of human response to disasters has been shown to be remarkably consistent across cultures, and for disasters of many different causes, effects, and durations, from earthquakes to shipwrecks to kidnapping. There is every reason to believe that the responses to less-direct threats will be similarly structured.

All disasters have in common phases of pre-impact, impact, and recoil, with typical behaviors occurring during each. In short-term disasters, these three phases are followed by rescue and post-traumatic adjustment. This is what is happening in many countries now, where the virus is being contained and normal activities are resuming, with some modifications. In long-term disasters, rescue does not come, or comes long after expected. This is closer to the situation in the United States. We argue that CEOs who are reporting demotivation and depression in themselves or their teams are currently experiencing the shift from short-term to long-term crisis. That shift is difficult at best. The circumstances of this particular shift, particularly the awareness that things could have played out differently, make it especially difficult. Leach writes in Survival Psychology that hope is curvilinear during long-term crises: “[H]ope is strong at the beginning of an ordeal but weakens substantially if relief does not arrive after an acceptable period of time. What counts as an acceptable period seems to vary from person to person.”

Once it becomes clear that rescue will not happen soon, those who survive move into the phases of adaptation and consolidation. Leach’s description of adaptation is worth quoting in full:

“During the period of adaptation there is a slight initial decomposition of a victim's psychology. There is a breaking of the links of his previously learned behaviour. Once broken, the survivor's behaviour can be adapted and rebuilt to better fit the new environment. Initially, there is a natural reluctance to believe that the old environment has been torn away during the period of impact and consequently denial, crying, anger, and weakness are frequent reactions. The period of recoil follows, which is a further breakdown in the psychological bonds shown by despair, grief, depression, and so on. Only once the victim is through this period can new survival behaviours be developed.”

Adaptation is breaking and unlearning, followed by consolidation, during which the new circumstances—though they may be unwanted and hostile—are accepted as “real,” and the survivor begins to function again. “He becomes someone again,” as Leach puts it. People who are in the consolidation phase are able to make jokes, to help others, to articulate their values and live them out in appropriate new ways in their new environment.

What long-term survival looks like
There is no point at which this becomes easy. Both Leach and Stockdale note that success in a long-term survival situation means getting up and fighting each day. Stockdale wrote in A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection that it was “the persistent practitioner of endurance who carried the day for courage. The game of physical intimidation was not won or lost in one grand showdown. The hero of us all was the plucky little guy who made them start all over every day.” Leach cited a shipwreck survivor who wrote, during the fifteenth day on his life raft, “My mood follows the sun. The light of each day makes me optimistic that I might last another forty. But the darkness of each night makes me realise that, if any one thing goes wrong, I will not survive.”

The circadian rhythm appears to be very important. Advice on adverse conditions—from unexpectedly having to work from one’s couch to Arctic survival—invariably emphasizes strict daily routine and self-discipline. However, such advice can backfire if it creates a black-and-white mentality in which one lapse invalidates the whole (the “I’ve eaten one cookie so I may as well eat the whole bag” syndrome). The most important thing is to get up each day with determination, not entrapped by the failures of the previous day.

What about the role of faith? “Most men need some kind of personal philosophy to endure what the Vietnam POWs endured,” Stockdale wrote, “For many it is religion; for many it is patriotic cause; for some it is simply a question of doing their jobs even though the result—confinement as a POW—may not seem necessarily fair.”

This insight is repeatedly endorsed by studies of survivors. Having a value system, a sense of identity, a purpose for one’s existence increases the odds of survival and resiliency. Leach’s explanation is elegant:

“Personal spirituality functions in a deceptively simple way. When a person who has lived for themselves and their immediacy is thrown into a new and frightening environment, be it a prison camp or a liferaft, a mountain range or a war zone, they become uprooted and disorientated. They have learnt their former life too well and cannot adapt to the change in circumstances. Their world has sunk and they along with it. On the other hand, those people who possess a personal ideal will take it with them, wherever they go, and wherever they happen to find themselves.”

A personal sense of spirituality, morality, values, meaning—call it what you will—is also indispensable for maintaining relationships during crisis situations. Stockdale repeatedly emphasized the practicality of integrity, the fact that the honest person cannot be blackmailed, shamed, or paralyzed from within. Bad decisions, failures, and mistakes are inevitable, especially in hostile circumstances; Stockdale was vehement on the need to acknowledge your errors, to yourself and your team:

“If you realize fear and guilt are your enemies, and not pain, then you've got a ticket to self-respect and certainly to friendship and support of your fellows. I'm not just telling you how to behave in prison, I'm telling you how to stay out of the grips of bureaucratic or any kind of extortion, how to avoid being used, how to rely on your conscience, how to keep your self-respect. You've got to start right off by unloading to and confiding in and trusting your fellow officers and your men.”

Advice and exercises for leaders
While the entire world is enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis is affecting individuals in drastically different ways depending on where they live, what they do, their family situation, and their understanding of and expectations about the pandemic, among other factors. Because of this, your team members are likely to be in different phases of reaction to the crisis. Keeping this in mind may be helpful. Here are additional, practical suggestions.

Begin meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission, and their immediate tasks (e.g, “I’m Sarah, I’m a creative, I’m creating a brand for Client X, I’m in this meeting to present findings and receive feedback”). Emergency responders typically ask people to give their names, where they are from, whom they are with, and what skills or abilities they have. This provides practical information to rescuers, but also has the effect of bringing people back to themselves and helping them begin to focus again. In a survival situation, keeping people connected to their identity, roles, relationships, and tasks is of utmost importance.

In long-term survival situations, these basic facts of the self must be connected to an overarching purpose. This purpose does not need to be grandiose but must above all be clear, and able to be broken down into concrete tasks. Arguably, the most important job a leader has in a crisis is to consistently articulate this purpose, and connect each day’s tasks to it. People drift without such leadership, as Leach explained: “The need for planning is crystal clear in acute, short-term crises. This need to plan is not always so clear in long-term situations where the threat to survival rolls on monotonously day after day. This is because planning automatically implies a future, and this future is frequently in doubt.”

Crisis leaders must motivate people past that doubt—not by happy talk or Stockdale’s “professional optimism,” but by constantly, constantly reiterating the organizational purpose and operationalizing it as tasks.

Talk of vision and ideals may seem a luxury that a crisis does not allow for, but this is a tremendous mistake. “A man must relate to a community, a commonality of communication style, a commonality of ritual, of laws, of traditions, of poetry, of shared dreams, if he is to prevail, if he is to resist,” Stockdale writes “‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ Learning the truth and full meaning of that biblical adage was lesson one for us in that crucible of pressure. It goes without saying that the first job of leadership is to provide the communication necessary for that civilization, that ritual, those laws, those traditions.”

Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit may be useful here. By grit, Duckworth does not mean endurance for its own sake, but rather commitment to a high-level goal, purpose, or mission—and the ability to assess and revise lower-level goals and tactics as necessary. The concept of hierarchical goals applies to both individuals and organizations. Daily tasks and immediate, concrete benchmarks “support broader goals at the next level, which in turn support an overarching primary goal that provides meaning and direction,” Duckworth writes. CEOs must continually reiterate the organizational purpose, and clarify the action chain of subordinate goals. These subordinate goals should be interrogated frequently, as the business environment continues to rapidly change.

It is crucial for all leaders, not only those in the C-suite, to understand the organization’s purpose, values, and how those connect to each day’s work. It has long been known that managers have at least as much impact on team morale and performance as the overall organization itself does. In crises, people tend to rely on the authority figures they already know and trust even more than usual. And remote work means that a direct manager may be an employee’s only real point of contact with the organization.

One question should be regularly asked at meetings: “What is something that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t make sense?” We are in the midst of a rapidly changing set of circumstances, and it is difficult to know what data points matter. Create regular times to discuss facts that don’t seem to fit the narrative. During a crisis, people tend automatically toward denial, to discount their experiences, “perceptual narrowing” (hyperfocus on the task at hand with no attention to the environment), and behavioral conformity. As a leader, you can help fight these cognitive biases by being aware of them.

Inevitably, you and members of your team will occasionally lose focus, make mistakes, fall victim to errors in judgment. Normalize admitting these mistakes and analyzing them. Discuss weak spots, harm reduction, and damage control—people will sometimes fall when traveling uncertain terrain, so how can they fall without injuring themselves?

Create ways for your team to surface both their deep faith and their real fears. “As if” exercises, roleplay, and assigned mental exercises can help the group articulate thoughts and feelings that may be too threatening to acknowledge otherwise. Use these tools often! (And not only in the workplace—try asking your child how their favorite plush toy, or their friends, are feeling about a particular event sometime.)

For example, when debating a course of action, have team members list all the “hard, cold” reasons for a decision and then all the “warm, fuzzy” reasons, or the most pessimistic/most optimistic scenarios, or the like. Incorporate both-sides thinking in order to surface tacit knowledge and insights.

One of the few management papers to address the Stockdale Paradox summarizes research on “mental contrasting,” a sequenced-visualization exercise. This exercise, which engages the mind with both faith in the future and brutal facts of the present, would be a useful one for either individuals or teams.

In mental contrasting, a person:

    Visualizes a goal and its rewards, and then
    Visualizes what obstacles—including their own behavior—stand between them and their goal. (It is important to do it in this order.)

For example, a person might visualize receiving a desired promotion, in lavish detail—their new office, a celebratory dinner with family and friends, the first meeting they would plan, how they would spend their bonus. Then they would envision unexpected budget cutbacks, the loss of a client, their own unaddressed conflict with a superior, or whatever other obstacles—in or out of their personal control—that might scuttle the hoped-for goal.

Mental contrasting has been shown to improve the subjective feeling of being focused and energized, as well as objective performance, in areas from academic achievement to weight loss.

Envisioning both the positive and the negative are necessary. Why? In their paper on the Stockdale Paradox, authors C. W. Von Bergen and Martin S. Bressler point to previous studies that show when people focus on only positive thoughts about the future, “they literally trick their minds into thinking they have already succeeded and, so, do not need actual efforts to attain something perceived as already acquired. However, completely disregarding positive thinking is also not effective. With purely negative thoughts, people convince themselves that they have already lost the goal, so, again, there is no need to make the efforts necessary to achieve it.”
Conclusion: Have faith

What does it mean, fundamentally, to have faith without being an optimist? What does it mean to have faith in the end of the story, as Admiral Stockdale claimed to have done?

For an answer, ask yourself: What were your highest values in January 2020? For you as an individual? For your company (perhaps your industry, or your profession)? Those values still matter. Those ideals do not change because of facts on the ground. If you have faith in those ideals, those values, then how might you customize the Stockdale Paradox for yourself? For your organization, or community?

One of this paper’s authors is a stage actress, and has defined the Stockdale Paradox for her art thus: “The brutal facts are that it will be years before it will be safe to breathe in each other’s faces again. It's possible that the entire infrastructure of theater as we know it will fall apart and have to be rebuilt. And yet—theater will never die. Theater is in the DNA of human civilization. Humans recite, tell stories, move together in groups. It's what we do.”

What are your brutal facts? What is your deepest faith?

What would your version of the Stockdale Paradox be?

What does your organization exist for?

What is your organizational purpose? How engaging is it?

About the Author
Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Robin Abrahams is a research associate at HBS.

[This is the fourth installment in a monthly series on management issues in the time of COVID-19.]

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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