In the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, a business leader told me that it’s not the winding down that caused him lack of sleep, it is winding back up. “Winding down is the easy part,” he said. “Keeping the faith in our ability to not only survive but also to thrive at the end of this is what keeps me awake at night.”
His challenge reminded me of the Stockdale Paradox, named by Jim Collins, researcher and author of the business classic, “Good to Great.” In his writings, Collins describes his conversation with Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking military officer held captive over 7 years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. When asked how he survived years of torture when others did not, he responded with this: “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.
Victor Frankl author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounts his life in (4) different Nazi death camps during WWII. Similar to Stockdale, he describes how he survived his tortured imprisonment when others did not. He argues in his book that while we cannot avoid the circumstances of life, we can choose our response. And as a result, find meaning in those circumstances, and move forward with renewed purpose.
While today’s circumstances are not those of surviving tortuous imprisonment, they have caused significant pain and loss for millions people and the organizations they serve. The first lesson from Admiral Stockdale and Dr. Frankl is to turn our experience into something meaningful to move forward with renewed purpose. In other words, how can we wind back up with renewed purpose, inspired to serve our organizations and our markets in new ways or with new meaning?
This is not the same however as moving forward with optimism. Collins also asked Stockdale about those who didn’t survive. Stockdale came back quickly, “Oh, that’s easy…the optimists. 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 they died of a broken heart.” Stockdale added, “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.”
In light of Stockdale’s paradoxical and proven wisdom, consider the following questions as particularly relevant to winding back up:
- What are the brutal facts of our current reality? What have we done to seek out the truth?
- What decisions have we put off that should be made now?
- What are the opportunities in this new reality to find new meaning in who we are as an organization and re-define our purpose?
- How much have we involved the people of our organization to gain their insights to the truth and to communicate the facts of the situation with frequency and transparency?
- What mechanisms do we have in place to quickly learn from mistakes made, decisions gone wrong, or new brutal facts to confront?
May all of us wind back up with renewed purpose, faith that we will prevail, and strength through confronting the brutal facts of our reality.