The Stockdale Paradox

If you spend any time with me, you’ll hear me cite Jim Collins. Whether it’s the Hedgehog Concept or rinsing cottage cheese, his works are a huge inspiration for me, both in strategy and in creative leadership.

But for me personally, my favorite soapbox of his is the Stockdale Paradox. If you know it, skip the rest of this paragraph. If not, it stems from an insight articulated by Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American officer who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. During his imprisonment, Stockdale watched as many men, much stronger and more fit than he, succumb to depression, disease, loneliness, and even suicide. Why? Many of them started out with the immense hope that their situation would end quickly. Others were overcome with despondency and were quickly resigned to their fate. But he survived more than 8 years in horrid conditions. How? Here are his words:
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.

There’s beauty and simplicity in that thinking, especially for leaders. When things get tough, we typically have two ideas held in tension — to deny the realities and be Pollyanna-level optimistic OR to let the sobering truth wash over us and become Chicken Little. But great leadership refuses both extremes and yet accepts them both simultaneously. It’s doing what F. Scott Fitzgerald noted was the mark of a first-rate intelligence: the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

But from my cheap seats, there’s a core notion to this concept that often goes unnoticed. And that’s the idea of being a truth teller. And not simply a meek one or an occasional one, but rather, it means being a voracious truth teller. Simon Sinek believes the most important trait in great leaders is courage. And while I agree, I would put this slightly above that, but only because truth is required for courage. You see, when leaders are known for telling the truth — at all costs — an organization is able to thrive. Psychological safety is possible. Trust is possible. Certainty is a real thing. But without it, any organization, no matter how fun the culture or how cool the snack program, will ultimately fail when hard times arrive. Why? Because every employee will have that nagging sense of doubt in the back of their minds. They will never be able to know for certain if they are being told the truth or spun for the good of those in charge.

So as a leader, how can you be a voracious truth teller? What prevents you from being one? Know this: that the less truth you give people, the less they will give you back.