What the Stockdale Paradox Tells Us About Crisis Leadership - Deepstash

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The Stockdale Paradox - wisdom for leaders in uncertain times

The Stockdale Paradox - wisdom for leaders in uncertain times

The Stockdale Paradox was made famous in Jim Collins's From Good to Great.  It gives wisdom for how leaders can manage an unrolling crisis.

As CEOS in crisis, a central concern that keeps them awake is understanding complex and rapidly changing circumstances accurately and responding to them by keeping the short and long-term goals in mind.

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James Stockdale -- a prisoner of war

James Stockdale -- a prisoner of war

Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years. His memoir describes grim details that are hard to bear. However, Stockdale's later life was happy.

When asking how he survived when he did not know the end of the story, 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.”

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The Stockdale Paradox: have faith but confront reality

Prisoners in Vietnam who were optimists didn't survive. They were saying 'We're going to be out by Christmas", "We're going to be out by Thanksgiving", and when it didn't happen, they eventually died of a broken heart.

The paradox is this: "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."

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Create goals

Create goals

You may pin your hope on some other event or date when the crisis will come to an end, but the possiblity remains that you don't know how long the crisis will last.

During a crisis, accept what you cannot change and make the best of what is in your power. You can't change anything if you don't accept it. In disasters, take goal-directed action to survive within it.

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How survival works

How survival works

All disasters have common phases: Pre-impact, impact, and recoil.

  • In short-term disasters, the three phases are followed by rescue and post-traumatic adjustment.
  • In long-term disasters, there is no rescue, or the rescue comes long after expected. Those who survive move into the adaptation and consolidation phase.

Adaptation is breaking and unlearning. Consolidation is where the new circumstances are accepted as the new normal.

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What long-term survival looks like

What long-term survival looks like

There is no point where things will ease up. Success in a long-term survival situation means getting up with determination and fighting every day while not being entrapped by the previous day's failures.

The role of faith: Having a value system, a sense of identity, and a purpose for one's existence increases the chance of survival and resiliency. It is also vital for maintaining relationships during crises.

If you want to keep your self-respect and certainty to friendship and support, you must realise that your enemies are fear and guilt, not pain.

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Commitment to a high-level goal

It is helpful to keep in mind that the crisis will affect individuals drastically. Each team member is likely to be in a different reaction phase to the crisis.

A leader's most important job in a crisis is to articulate the overarching purpose and connect each day's tasks to it. The planning implies a future, and this future is often in doubt.

Start meetings by having each person introduce themselves by their name, job title, mission and immediate tasks. This gives practical information and helps bring people back to themselves and focus again.

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Know which data points matter

Ask regularly at meetings: "What is something that doesn't fit in, that doesn't make sense?"

It isn't easy to know what data points matter during rapidly changing circumstances. Individuals can become hyperfocused on tasks without paying attention to the environment.

  • Create regular times to discuss facts that don't fit the narrative.
  • You and your team members will inevitably make mistakes, lose focus, and fall victim to errors. Normalise admitting these mistakes. Discuss weak spots, analyse mistakes, and do damage control.

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Create ways to help your team articulate threatening thoughts and feelings

  • Use "as if" exercises, roleplay and assigned mental exercises to help the group articulate thoughts and feelings that may be too scary to acknowledge. Use these tools often.
  • Use mental contrasting, a sequenced visualisation exercise: A person first visualises a goal and its rewards, then imagine what obstacles can get in the way, including their own behaviour. For example, a person might visualise receiving a promotion but then would envision budget cutbacks or loss of a client.

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