Ask Dr. Jana | The ‘Stockdale Paradox’: The Key to Success in Times of Uncertainty

May 8, 2020


Dear Dr. Jana,

I have been working hard to implement the concepts you’ve taught us, but I am worried we won’t be allowed to open up soon enough or generate enough money to pay back our loans and stay in business. I am trying to stay positive, but I am quite fearful.



Dear Melanie,

I totally understand the ambiguity and anxiety that you are feeling. I am reminded of what my friend, Jim Collins, calls the ‘Stockdale Paradox’, the paradoxical concept that an optimistic outlook must be balanced with a sense of realism to prevail in times of hardship. I write more about the concept below.

Dr. Jana


The ‘Stockdale Paradox’: The Key to Success in Times of Uncertainty

Admiral Stockdale was one of the highest-ranking officers in the US Navy when he and his men were captured, then held prisoner for seven years during the Vietnam War. Because he was the leader, he was frequently tortured and never knew when he’d be pulled out of his room and tortured again. With no news from the outside world, he had no reason to believe that his life would ever get better. In spite of all this, he never stopped believing that he would get out alive, but he balanced his optimism with realism.

As Jim Collins, recounts in his book Good to Great, he asked Admiral Stockdale which of his men didn’t make it out. Surprisingly it was the optimists, the ones who had set unfounded goals based on “hope”, i.e., what they wanted to happen. 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.” They had pinned their goals on hope alone, and when what they had hoped for didn’t happen, hope died and so did they.

As a leader you need to have an unwavering belief that you will make it through AND at the same time, you need to assess your current situation, confront the brutal facts, and take the necessary actions to make sure the company can endure. Henry Ford was right: whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’ll be right! But getting through the current pandemic requires more than a positive mindset, and more than hope. In order to get through the current situation, and position your company for rebound, you need a combination of belief in your vision, acknowledgement of reality, the willingness to start doing new things and stop doing old things that no longer work.

Some people are confused and think this combination of “unwavering belief that you will make it”, tempered by the “recognition of the brutal facts” is two-faced, or a repudiation of the plans everyone worked so hard to develop. But in fact, the ability to have unwavering faith that you and your company will make it through is what gives you the strength to confront harsh reality, to plan and then do what is necessary to ensure that your company survives, and comes through as strong as possible so that it can rebound and grow again.

In short, keep believing that your company will make it, i.e., that positive mindset, but use every minute of “down-time” to re-examine and rethink your business model. Review your product line and stop selling what’s unprofitable. Assess your people and determine who will enable your company to get to the next level, then do everything you can to keep them. Review your marketing, communication and sales messages to your customers.

Hope is not a strategy, but you need to be hopeful and optimistic. As Andy Grove, the founder and former CEO of Intel once said, “only the paranoid survive”, but too much fear can be crippling, and negativism can fuel feelings of hopelessness. As a leader you need to learn to walk that balance between staying positive, maintaining hope, and being realistic about what you need to do to achieve your vision.

Ask Dr. Jana your questions on company survival and growth. Submit your questions via email to Dr. Jana and she’ll answer in her ‘Ask Dr. Jana’ column.

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