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Stockdale Paradox

What the Stockdale Paradox Tells Us About Crisis Leadership

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Advice and exercises for leaders

Begin meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission, and their immediate tasks

This provides practical information to rescuers, but also has the effect of bringing people back to themselves and helping them begin to focus again.

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.

One question should be regularly asked at meetings: “What is something that doesn’t fit in, that doesn’t make sense?” 

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. 

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.)

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.

stories from Romania

This story reads as the one about Matthias Corvinus and Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler., or Vlad Dracula.
After the Ottoman Empire attacked Vlad Tepes from the South, Matthias Corvinus, one of the recognized most educated sovereign in his times, start spreading rumors that Vlad sucks blood from his peasants, to spread demoralization, so he can expand to the East on account of Vlad Tepes’ lands.

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