Coronavirus, leadership, and The Stockdale Paradox

On March 12,2020 my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary with breakfast at a local pancake house and a matinee showing of the movie, Birds of Prey, complete with buttered popcorn and Icee.

We knew about Coronavirus, of course, but the virus was still mostly somewhere else, not here. After all, there were only a few cases in San Antonio.

But we wondered if that would change.

It did.

Schools were on Spring Break that week and we soon learned the break would be extended another week. We wondered if the situation could get as bad for us as it was in Italy at the time. (For more on this, read How COVID-19 went from global to personal.)

I never imagined it could be as bad here as it was there, where the enitre country was shut down in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus and the death rates climbed every day.

Of course, it did spread here.

San Antonio shut down and only essential businesses were open. People stayed home. Schools closed and switched to online learning.

Everything stopped. For me, that meant no hugging the family, not even kids and grandkids, no more group workouts, going out to dinner, bunco, book club. Nothing in person, only virtual.

Still, I was sure it would all be over by June.

Okay! Let’s open back up!

I felt relieved when the orders were lifted and businesses opened back up at 25% capacity several weeks later in Mid-May.

Perfect! Right in time for Memorial Day, Graduations, Summer, Father’s Day, and Independence Day. 

Of course, the virus was still around, but I was like most people who just wanted to get back to normal.

A headline summed up the general feeling pretty well, “Coronavirus is not over, but people are over Coronavirus.” 

As a result of that “being over it” attitude, case numbers spiked sharply. Now, COVID cases are filling hospitals.

It makes me wonder: When will things get back to normal?

June came and went and things only got worse. Now, we’re in July and things aren’t looking so good.  

August? Probably not. September maybe?

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nierenberg said the other day, The virus is not going away. The best we can do is learn how to live with it. Wear a mask, keep your social distance, wash your hands. If you’re sick, stay home. (I’ve paraphrased his message from my memory.)

Okay, fine. If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it.

I guess.

This is what I don’t understand.

If staying at least 6-feet away from people, staying home, wearing a mask when I go out, and washing my hands constantly can help my family and me stay safe, why don’t I want to do it? I mean, I do it, but I hate every minute of it.

I realized I need a mindset shift to help me better cope with this whole quarantine-COVID situation. Even though I accept the reality of it all, I can’t quite accept that this is our “new normal.” I’m resisting accepting that possibility because I want it all to go away in the worst way.

A few days ago, I told my husband about my internal struggle. He listened and said, Tell me more about that struggle.

I explained, When I think about it, it’s like, I wish it were different. I mean, this sucks. Are we going to have to wear masks at Thanksgiving and Christmas? I want us to be past this.

He said, What you’ve just described is The Stockdale Paradox. That’s covered in the book, Good to Great.

He recently read it as a recommended book about leadership. So…what does my bad attitude about quarantine-COVID have to do with leadership?

Attitude and leadership

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses something called The Stockdale Paradox.

“The name refers to 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. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.” 

Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York, NY, Harper Collins Business, 2001.

When the author met Stockdale, he asked how he had dealt with his circumstances when he “did not know the end of the story?” (That is, whether he would survive and make it home)

Stockdale’s response:

“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.”

Stockdale said, “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.”

Coronavirus and the Stockdale Paradox

1. Have faith that you will prevail in the end. 

Believe that we’ll get through this. The virus will eventually be contained. It may be a long time from now and things may be different by the time that happens, but we will get through this. 

2. Have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of the current reality, whatever they might be. 

I would not have thought of my mindset as discipline, but it’s basically having the kind of attitude that says, Well, this is where I am. This is what’s happening. And this is what I can do about it. And then doing that thing. 

Brutal reality

So what is the reality of our current situation? In Texas, where I live, the reality is that more people are getting sick every day and there’s no end in sight. 

Stockdale says “faith that you will prevail” is not to be confused with being optimistic. He says the “optimists” in the POW camp are the ones that didn’t make it.

“They were the ones who said, ‘We’ll 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.”

That’s me!

I always thought it was good to be optimistic, but according to the Stockdale Paradox, having faith that you can get through even the most difficult circumstances is not the same as optimism, where a person avoids or denies reality, kind of like they wish things were different and hope it all goes away. (Exactly like I was doing!) 

Leadership is personal

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t takes an in-depth look at why some companies make it through difficulties and other don’t.

What it boils down to is leadership. A strong leader has the “discipline to confront the most brutal facts” of their reality. Ignoring or wishing away brutal facts doesn’t change them. Neither does irrational optimism when you’re in a storm.

As much as I want to be optimistic in relation to Coronavirus, I now understand the difference between being optimistic and facing the facts of the current situation. 

This isn’t about politics or predicting the future or hoping for the best. It’s about dealing with the undesired reality of the current situation. And it’s about taking the couragous path of leadership, even if it’s only for my own attitude.

Although you never know how your actions and thoughts can affect the people around you.

Mindset changes everything even if it changes nothing

My attitude now? Wanting and wishing things were different doesn’t make them different. I have to deal with COVID-19’s brutal reality.

I’ll focus on what I can control (wash hands, wear mask, social distance, etc.) and not worry about what’s out of my control (what other people do).

And keep the faith that we will prevail and thrive in the end.

It’s strange, but I feel better prepared to live with quarantine-COVID now.

How are you handling the current situation? What struggles have you faced and what are your thoughts about The Stockdale Paradox and leadership? Feel free to leave your notes in the comments below.