Paradoxical Leadership – Where Optimism Meets Pragmatism Creates Resilience

On September 9, 1965, while returning from a mission in North Vietnam, the US Navy pilot Captain James Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Stockdale ejected, breaking a bone in his back and badly dislocating his knee which subsequently went untreated and eventually left him with a fused knee joint and a very distinctive gait. Stockdale wound up in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”, where he spent the next seven and half years as the highest ranking naval officer and leader of American resistance against Vietnamese attempts to use prisoners for propaganda purposes.

Despite being kept in solitary confinement for more than four years, in leg irons for two years, physically tortured more than 15 times, denied medical care and malnourished, Stockdale instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system–-after x minutes, you can say certain things–-that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create. Codified in the acronym BACK U.S. (Unity over Self), these rules gave prisoners a sense of hope and empowerment. Many of the prisoners credited these rules as giving them the strength to endure their lengthy ordeal.

The climax of the struggle of wills between American POWs and their captors came in the spring of 1969. Told he was to be taken “downtown” and paraded in front of foreign journalists, Stockdale slashed his scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool, knowing that his captors would not display a prisoner who was disfigured. Later, after discovering that some prisoners had died during torture, he preferred death to submission. This act so convinced the Vietnamese of his determination to die rather than to cooperate that the Communists ceased attempts to torture him into meeting peace delegations or taking part in other propaganda efforts. Stockdale’s courage and decisive leadership were an inspiration to his fellow POWs.

He was released from prison in 1973 at the age of 50. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1976 and was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy and the only three-star Admiral in the history of the Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Medal of Honor.

In his bestseller “Good To Great“, Jim Collins, author, consultant, and former professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business asked Stockdale how he could deal with such endless suffering and torture when he did not know the end of the nightmare.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said when I asked him. “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.”

“Who didn’t make it out?” Collins asked.

“Oh, that’s easy,” Stockdale said. “The optimists. Oh, 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.”

Jim Collins named this contradictory philosophy the “Stockdale Paradox“.

This Paradox is applicable to so many challenges we face – including acute ones. Whether we are going through recovery from addiction, depression, or other disorder, being fired, getting divorced, grieving the loss of a loved one, or a host of other difficulties in our lives, “you must have unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Tragic Optimism – The antidote to blind positivity

Interestingly, the Stockdale Paradox is like famous Austrian psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s (1959 – 1997) experience in several German concentration camps in World War II. Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which is one of “the ten most influential books in America”, observed that the death rate in the German concentration camps increased close to Christmas because many people believed they would be spending it with their family died of disappointment. He developed the concept of “tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy”. It refers to the capacity to hope despite, and because of, tragic experiences.

I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Viktor Frankl

Tragic optimism is predicated on the defiant human spirit, the Nietzschean view that what cannot destroy a person makes them stronger. It has no use for wishful thinking or positive illusions and is based, in part, on the acceptance that enables one to confront the reality of what cannot be changed. Tragic Optimism is similar to the Stockdale Paradox in that both expressed a duality involving the acknowledgment of the difficulties of the current situation and the positive belief that in the end, they would triumph.

Tragic Optimism and Stockdale Paradox may be exactly what we need to cope as we’re still trudging through the pandemic – and may help us once we’re on the other side, too.

Researchers who study “post-traumatic growth” have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times—including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active self-reflection and searches for meaning that people undertake during and after it.

Suffering is a part of life, and the question is how are you going to cope with it? “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice,” Frankl explained. “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose…If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

Paradoxical Leadership

The Stockdale Paradox and Tragic Optimism are the signatures of all those who create greatness, be it in leading their own lives or in leading others. Winston Churchill had it during the Second World War. Martin Luther King Jr. had it during the civil rights movement. Nelson Mandela had it when served 27 years in prison. Steve Jobs had it when he was ousted and exiled from his own company Apple.

All visionary leaders, in some ways, embraced the Stockdale Paradox and Tragic Optimism. It didn’t matter how bleak the situation or how stultifying their mediocrity, they all maintained unwavering faith that they would not just survive, but prevail as great people. And yet, at the same time, they became relentlessly disciplined at confronting the most brutal facts of their current reality.

In today’s increased turbulence and tension in geopolitics and economics, accelerated change and complexity in business and technology, the test of a first-rate leader may be the ability to hold two opposing ideas and behaviors while still retaining some measure of integrity and direction.

In a research paper “Paradoxical leader behaviors in people management” published in Academy of Management Journal in 2005, researchers empirically derived five dimensions of paradoxical leader behaviors at supervisory levels:

  1. Combining self-centeredness with other-centeredness;
  2. Maintaining both distance and closeness;
  3. Treating subordinates uniformly while allowing individualization;
  4. Maintaining decision control while allowing autonomy;
  5. Enforcing work requirements while allowing flexibility.

This paradoxical leadership is especially important when organizations are struggling through difficult financial times or facing other challenges such as COVID-19. Leaders must be able to take on the role of coach and cheerleader, while at the same time overcoming adverse business conditions; that is, leaders must accept and balance paradoxes at the same.

Confident Humanity

In his new book “Think Again“, leadership and management guru Adam Grant coined another important paradoxical leadership style – Confident Humanity.

Grant argued that confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself (your capability & strength). Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods (strategies & tools). You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.

An ideal wherein the individual has faith in their abilities but retains sufficient doubt and flexibility to recognize they could be wrong. Because of this, they remain curious and flexible, always seeking the truth.

What we want to attain is confident humility: having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. That gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights.

Adam Grant

Confident humility is not the confidence in your existing knowledge – it is in your capacity to learn; it is not the confidence in your existing situation – it is your capacity to overcome the challenges in front of you.

Confident humility doesn’t just open our minds to rethinking – it improves the quality of our rethinking. When people have the confidence to acknowledge what they don’t know, they pay more attention to how strong the evidence is and spend more time reading material that contradicts their opinions.

In rigorous studies of leadership effectiveness across the US and China, the most productive and innovative teams aren’t run by leaders who are confident or humble. The most effective leaders score high in both confidence and humility. Although they have faith in their strengths, they’ve also keenly aware of their weaknesses. They know they need to recognize and transcend their limits if they want to push the limits of greatness. They interpreted doubts as cues that they needed to improve their tools or strategies, not their ability to achieve challenging goals.

Final thoughts

Life is unfair – sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no reason, no one to blame. It might be disease; it might be injury; it might be an accident; it might be losing a loved one; it might be getting shot down over Vietnam and thrown into a POW camp for almost eight years; it might be being sent to four Nazi’s concentration camps in a total of three years while all members of your family died of starvation and torture.

What separate people, Stockdale and Frankel taught us, is not the presence or absence of pain and suffering, but how they deal with the inevitable pain and suffering of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox and Tragic Optimism have proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger than ever mentally, psychologically, and spiritually.

If you could embrace these seemingly contradictory and paradoxical mindsets, you will dramatically increase our odds of overcoming whatever challenges and setbacks that life throws at us, making long-term meaningful decisions and choices in any uncertain and bleak circumstance.

Published by Anthony Tsang

I’m a bookworm, a sports & fitness addict, an adventurer, and more than anything else, I’m a permanent work-in-progress, always learning and evolving till the day I die.

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