The Stockdale Paradox

In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins writes about how a few good companies that made themselves into great companies had to struggle to deal with “a powerful psychological duality”:

“On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality. On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts.”

Collins calls this duality “the Stockdale Paradox,” for Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was “the highest-ranking United States military officer in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War.”

Stockdale was tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment, and Collins had the chance to spend an afternoon with him during the writing of the book. Collins writes that while in the prison camp Stockdale was able to –

“…create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda.”

Here is an exchange between the two men from the book edited down to its essentials:

Collins: “Who didn’t make it out?”

Stockdale: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”

Collins: “The optimists? I don’t understand.”

Stockdale: 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 then Thanksgiving, and then it would Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Collins writes that after a pause, Stockdale continued:

“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.”

By now, regular readers of this website have probably figured out why I quote this passage.

Some of the problems we face in the American political arena are as old as the founding itself and will always be with us. But there is a big batch of unnecessary problems that have resulted because the best and brightest in our nation have avoided politics and government.

Most of the domestic issues we face, in fact, are messes created by government itself, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the disaster that is the public schools to name a few. Instead of the Republican Party serving as a rallying point for clean-up crews, it has too often been a place for small people to gravitate to so they can make an easy living or receive a regular ego massage.

Whether or not John McCain wins the White House in November platform supporting Republicans have their work cut out for them in 2009 and beyond. Nationally things aren’t as bad as they are here in Illinois, but as we’ve noted often, Dennis Hastert successfully exported a lot of the Illinois version of GOP failure to the rest of the country during his eight years as U.S. House Speaker.

There are many reasons to be optimistic for the long-haul since there isn’t anything wrong with all those mostly un-used Republican principles. Democrats might have substantial support at the moment, but they can’t make bloated government work. And a lot of people might be currently confused about the importance of traditional values, but as the left-wing social experiments weaken the social fabric even more, a revival of common sense waits in the wings.

The pivot point for all these things is leadership. There’s good news on this front, too, since we all know quality individuals who have steered clear of politics. The brutal facts of our current reality demands—we recruit a better class of people into politics and elect a lot of them to government office.