The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has given us all pause for thought.
We are now all effectively under house arrest in communal effort to stem the coronavirus contagion, and the lockdown is having a pronounced affect on business and society. How we operate as a community has changed significantly.
Some people will struggle through this period as they are forced to shutter their businesses. Others may find the slower pace of life a welcome change, while some will be riddled with anxiety about their newfound imprisonment. Once the novelty of isolation and social distancing have faded, we will all be forced to confront a new mode of living. That will be a personal journey for each of us.
For me, it is during times of crisis that I look for lessons from those who have endured far more brutal hardships and survived.
The late United States Navy aviator and Medal of Honour recipient James Stockdale may not be a name you recognise. But hopefully after reading this article you will be able to put your own predicament into perspective; and maybe even adopt a new attitude towards life.
Stockdale was a fighter pilot during wartime when his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down on 9 September 1965. After ejecting from the aircraft, he parachuted down into a small village deep behind enemy lines. Unable to escape on foot, the 42-year old pilot was captured by his enemies and beaten severely. He spent the next seven years in a POW camp.
Stockdale was a vice admiral and the most senior US military prisoner in captivity. Together with ten fellow American military POWs he formed the ‘Alcatraz Gang’, a group of prisoners who started a resistance against the cruelty of their captors. The Alcatraz Gang, led by Stockdale, were kept in a separate wing of the prison and tortured. Each prisoner was kept in an isolated 3 by 9-foot cell.
It was in these brutal conditions that Stockdale developed a coping strategy that has since become known as The Stockdale Paradox. In a conversation with author James C. Collins many years later, Stockdale explained that he “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.”
When asked who didn’t make it out alive, Stockdale’s response was simple: 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 be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
“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.”
James C. Collins would coin this mindset The Stockdale Paradox in his 2001 business book Good to Great, a management book that reveals how good companies become great ones.
There is much to learn from the forgotten heroes of yesteryear who have survived against the odds and emerged stronger for them.
Today, I will have faith that I will come through this crisis. But I will also accept the confronting reality of my situation. I will not fall into the trap of optimism but will start planning for the coming days, however difficult they may be, and know that the hard times will not last forever.