Two Things Great Leaders Must Do in Turbulent Times

Thankfully, the election is over. We now have clarity about who is going to lead our country for the next four years. I have never personally witnessed such excitement and hopefulness following an election (though I acknowledge that not everyone shared that sentiment).

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/whiskerdisker, Image #4588664

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/whiskerdisker

However, the problems still remain. The stock market fell precipitously yesterday. In fact, it was the biggest post-election decline in history. I am not sure that this is so much a response to President-Elect Obama as it is a reflection of the fact that the economic environment is still enormously turbulent.

So is the glass half empty or half full? The truth is, both.

In times like these, leaders must do two things simultaneously:

  1. Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
  2. Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

This is what author Jim Collins refers to as “The Stockdale Paradox.” In his book, Good to Great, he tells the story of Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.

After his release, a reporter asked Admiral Stockdale, “How in the world did you survive eight years in a prisoner of war camp?”

He replied,

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that we would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

The reporter then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Admiral Stockdale replied,

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and 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.”

Collins then goes onto state that an attribute of truly great companies and great leaders is that they are able to embrace simultaneously these twin truths of their current reality and their ultimate triumph.

Last week, Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio sent an internal memo to his 40,000 employees. It was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. When I read the reports in the publishing press, they naturally emphasized the negative comments. However, when I read the actual memo itself, I thought it was a great example of The Stockdale Paradox in action. I urge you to read it, especially if you are in the publishing or bookselling industry.

Questions: Are you embracing the Stockdale Paradox in your leadership? If so, how?
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  • Russell

    Nice post.

    I love the book “Good to Great” and saw the memo from Riggio.

    It’s a hard thing to do, but leaders must face the brutal facts of their current reality and at the same time keep faith in themselves and their team that they will prevail.

  • http://macengr.wordpress.com Scott

    Excellent post, Michael. It’s kind of like Mickey Mantle said. Sometimes you just have to endure…

  • Lynn Kehler

    I’ve been thinking about the Stockdale Paradox quite a bit lately. One action that I recently took was to deliver a message to our employees that we will likely need to do some prudent “belt tightening” on spending. However, I have also discussed some exciting new product and market opportunities and the need to redirect some of that spending to “investments” so that these opportunities can be realized to their fullest when economic conditions improve.

    I believe that our employees appreciated the proactivity and honesty in this message and the vision of better times ahead.

  • http://www.livethered.com Mark Jordan

    Michael, Great post! It not only applies to business–bookselling or otherwise. The Stockdale Paradox also has great implications for understanding how we live out our faith. How do we live the Gospel? Employ the “Stockdale Paradox” in our thinking–“never lose faith in the end of the story!” There’s a great end of the story coming! And at the same time, confronting the most brutal facts of our current situation could be our attitudes, habits, dare I say “the sins that so easily entangle us.” The implications are simple and yet profound, on both the individual and corporate level.
    Thanks for giving us all a strategy for living in these important and challenging days! Nicely done.

  • Russell

    Nice post.

    I love the book "Good to Great" and saw the memo from Riggio.

    It's a hard thing to do, but leaders must face the brutal facts of their current reality and at the same time keep faith in themselves and their team that they will prevail.

  • http://macengr.wordpress.com/ Scott

    Excellent post, Michael. It's kind of like Mickey Mantle said. Sometimes you just have to endure…

  • Lynn Kehler

    I've been thinking about the Stockdale Paradox quite a bit lately. One action that I recently took was to deliver a message to our employees that we will likely need to do some prudent "belt tightening" on spending. However, I have also discussed some exciting new product and market opportunities and the need to redirect some of that spending to "investments" so that these opportunities can be realized to their fullest when economic conditions improve.

    I believe that our employees appreciated the proactivity and honesty in this message and the vision of better times ahead.

  • http://www.thischangesnothing.com Michael Covington

    I completely agree! As a good friend of mine often said, the eleventh commandment should read “Thou shalt not kid thyself”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1218236009s4731/ Eric S. Mueller

    A man I highly respect, Dr. Chuck Missler, often asks “What is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?” He then answers “The pessimist has more information. But the optimist is uncertain about the future.” It is from that uncertainty that we can draw hope. It’s easy to look at current events and draw a worst case scenario, from which we can lead ourselves to despair. It is much harder to look at current events and realize that we have no idea where we’re actually headed, and what possibilities exist.

  • http://www.livethered.com/ Mark Jordan

    Michael, Great post! It not only applies to business–bookselling or otherwise. The Stockdale Paradox also has great implications for understanding how we live out our faith. How do we live the Gospel? Employ the "Stockdale Paradox" in our thinking–"never lose faith in the end of the story!" There's a great end of the story coming! And at the same time, confronting the most brutal facts of our current situation could be our attitudes, habits, dare I say "the sins that so easily entangle us." The implications are simple and yet profound, on both the individual and corporate level.
    Thanks for giving us all a strategy for living in these important and challenging days! Nicely done.

  • http://www.flurrycreations.com John

    Michael, Thanks for the post. It is so true. I think as Christians we hide behind pollyanna approaches to our current situation here on earth. In Church those optimists almost seem to be sticking their fingers in their ears. They help no one. Neither is the chicken little. We really need more leaders to lead from these two places. The situation is bad. Will we make it out? Yes. When? I am not sure. Will it all have a happy ending. No doubt.

  • http://www.thischangesnothing.com/ Michael Covington

    I completely agree! As a good friend of mine often said, the eleventh commandment should read "Thou shalt not kid thyself".

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1218236009s4731/ Eric S. Mueller

    A man I highly respect, Dr. Chuck Missler, often asks "What is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?" He then answers "The pessimist has more information. But the optimist is uncertain about the future." It is from that uncertainty that we can draw hope. It's easy to look at current events and draw a worst case scenario, from which we can lead ourselves to despair. It is much harder to look at current events and realize that we have no idea where we're actually headed, and what possibilities exist.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Kim: Thanks. That is encouraging!

    @John: Someone told me last week, “Everything will be okay in the end. If things aren’t okay, it’s not the end.”

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com/ Anne Lang Bundy

    Great definition of a balanced place between cynicism and idealism. Truth always has balance.

    I strive to be a pragmatic optimist, determined to make every potential stumbling block a stepping stone.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    As an eternal optimist, I have to say I don’t think like he says we do. LOL I wouldn’t have been saying we’ll make it out by Christmas. But I WOULD be saying God is in control and we will make it eventually.

    I know things are bad right now, but I also know God has it in hand. That gives me peace and patience. It also makes me know I’m going to have to work harder and smarter than ever before. I love a challenge! :)

  • http://www.flurrycreations.com/ John

    Michael, Thanks for the post. It is so true. I think as Christians we hide behind pollyanna approaches to our current situation here on earth. In Church those optimists almost seem to be sticking their fingers in their ears. They help no one. Neither is the chicken little. We really need more leaders to lead from these two places. The situation is bad. Will we make it out? Yes. When? I am not sure. Will it all have a happy ending. No doubt.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com/ Michael S. Hyatt

    @Kim: Thanks. That is encouraging!

    @John: Someone told me last week, “Everything will be okay in the end. If things aren’t okay, it’s not the end.”

  • Fran Toolan

    In challenging times, my daily mantra is, “This too, shall pass!”

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com/ Anne Lang Bundy

    Great definition of a balanced place between cynicism and idealism. Truth always has balance.

    I strive to be a pragmatic optimist, determined to make every potential stumbling block a stepping stone.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com/ Colleen Coble

    As an eternal optimist, I have to say I don't think like he says we do. LOL I wouldn't have been saying we'll make it out by Christmas. But I WOULD be saying God is in control and we will make it eventually.

    I know things are bad right now, but I also know God has it in hand. That gives me peace and patience. It also makes me know I'm going to have to work harder and smarter than ever before. I love a challenge! :)

  • http://www.emergingintofaith.blogspot.com Dr. David Frisbie

    I’m not certain that political promises translate effectively into meaningful change. I do believe that incarnational Christianity (humble, teachable, feeding the poor) has enormous transformational power. Such incarnational faith is, I believe, our greatest tool for social change, going forward.

  • Fran Toolan

    In challenging times, my daily mantra is, "This too, shall pass!"

  • http://www.thewritingroad.blogspot.com Scoti Springfield Domeij

    Wow! Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio’s memo was incredibly and refreshingly honest. I loved the book “Good to Great.” Jet propelled into single parenthood shattered my optimist lens, but opened my eyes to God. He’s been my husband, provider, protector, healer, and my hope.

    Having lived years of single parenthood in financial crisis and fear, this economic downturn does not frighten me as much as some I know. As their financial security whirlpools down the drain, I understand their grief. Many, many times I said, “God is all I have.” And it’s true.

    Besides my faith in God, a sense of humor helps—a lot. I think this comment overheard in a Barnes and Nobles store in Brooklyn Heights, New York is hilarious.

    Lady: Excuse me, but I’m looking for a book.

    Store Chick: And?

    Lady: I don’t remember the title or author, but the cover is purple.

    Store Chick: Our purple books are downstairs.

    Lady: They sent me up here.

    Store Chick: We’re sold out of purple books. You want something in a yellow?

  • http://www.emergingintofaith.blogspot.com/ Dr. David Frisbie

    I'm not certain that political promises translate effectively into meaningful change. I do believe that incarnational Christianity (humble, teachable, feeding the poor) has enormous transformational power. Such incarnational faith is, I believe, our greatest tool for social change, going forward.

  • http://www.thewritingroad.blogspot.com/ Scoti Springfield Do

    Wow! Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio's memo was incredibly and refreshingly honest. I loved the book "Good to Great." Jet propelled into single parenthood shattered my optimist lens, but opened my eyes to God. He’s been my husband, provider, protector, healer, and my hope.

    Having lived years of single parenthood in financial crisis and fear, this economic downturn does not frighten me as much as some I know. As their financial security whirlpools down the drain, I understand their grief. Many, many times I said, “God is all I have.” And it’s true.

    Besides my faith in God, a sense of humor helps—a lot. I think this comment overheard in a Barnes and Nobles store in Brooklyn Heights, New York is hilarious.

    Lady: Excuse me, but I’m looking for a book.

    Store Chick: And?

    Lady: I don’t remember the title or author, but the cover is purple.

    Store Chick: Our purple books are downstairs.

    Lady: They sent me up here.

    Store Chick: We’re sold out of purple books. You want something in a yellow?

  • daniel

    Hey there… I saw that you said the glass is really ‘both’ half full and half empty. Does the same work for book titles? Say… a journal called ‘by the book’?

    It was something I was thinking about when I read your post, and I figured… why not ask. :)

    -dj

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael S. Hyatt

    @Daniel: I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your question.

  • daniel

    Hey there… I saw that you said the glass is really 'both' half full and half empty. Does the same work for book titles? Say… a journal called 'by the book'?

    It was something I was thinking about when I read your post, and I figured… why not ask. :)

    -dj

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com/ Michael S. Hyatt

    @Daniel: I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your question.

  • http://www.finkelde.com.au John Finkelde

    The Stockdale Paradox has stayed with me ever since reading it in Jim Collins book.

    There are times as a pastor facing multiple complex problems that I prefer denial!

    However mixing reality with hope has gotten me through some interesting times in 27 years of leadership.

    Also as an Australian I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the Presidential race & like the ultimate result.

  • http://www.finkelde.com.au/ John Finkelde

    The Stockdale Paradox has stayed with me ever since reading it in Jim Collins book.

    There are times as a pastor facing multiple complex problems that I prefer denial!

    However mixing reality with hope has gotten me through some interesting times in 27 years of leadership.

    Also as an Australian I've thoroughly enjoyed watching the Presidential race & like the ultimate result.

  • http://davidfoster.tv David Foster

    I would add a third; the energy to inspire people to selfless action in the now!

  • http://davidfoster.tv/ David Foster

    I would add a third; the energy to inspire people to selfless action in the now!

  • http://www.beautysecretsspiritsoulbody.com Duong-Beauty Secrets Spirit Soul & Body

    I absolutely love and agree with what Jim Collins shared in Good To Great, one of my top favorite Books! I absolutely believe we have to face facts/reality but also retain that faith will prevail. As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest shall not cease. God commanded Isaac to stay in land of famine and to sow his seed their, not to go to Egypt. Egypt represented the World’ system. I believe that if we continue to abide by the principles of seedtime & harvest, God’s system, even in turbulent times–that’s how we can prevail iin turbulent times.

  • http://www.beautysecretsspiritsoulbody.com/ Duong-Beauty Secrets

    I absolutely love and agree with what Jim Collins shared in Good To Great, one of my top favorite Books! I absolutely believe we have to face facts/reality but also retain that faith will prevail. As long as the earth remains, seedtime and harvest shall not cease. God commanded Isaac to stay in land of famine and to sow his seed their, not to go to Egypt. Egypt represented the World' system. I believe that if we continue to abide by the principles of seedtime & harvest, God's system, even in turbulent times–that's how we can prevail iin turbulent times.

  • http://www.michaeldmiller.wordpress.com/ michael d miller

    Well said Mike thanks for the reminder on leadership

  • http://www.michaeldmiller.wordpress.com/ michael d miller

    Well said Mike thanks for the reminder on leadership

  • http://www.livehealthierandhappier.com/ Duong Sheahan

    One of my favorite books is Good to Great and, this post is so timely today. So many are facing turbulent times and we need more encouragement than ever. We we live by principal regardless, we will prevail. We will make it. I love your posts, always inspiring, always encouraging, and always timely!

  • http://www.livehealthierandhappier.com/ Duong Sheahan

    One of my favorite books is Good to Great and, this post is so timely today. So many are facing turbulent times and we need more encouragement than ever. We we live by principal regardless, we will prevail. We will make it. I love your posts, always inspiring, always encouraging, and always timely!

  • http://www.kaylafinley.com/ Kayla

    The comment about the optimists is so true. Every time I've tried to put a timeline on something, I hold onto that as my hope. Doesn't work.

  • http://www.kaylafinley.com/ Kayla

    The comment about the optimists is so true. Every time I've tried to put a timeline on something, I hold onto that as my hope. Doesn't work.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BCOM BCOM

    Perhaps optimism must take on some form of vagueness. As apposed to saying "this will happen at such and such a time" perhaps we should say "this will happen, I know it". For the coming Kingdom of God, every follower of Christ has the hope of good triumphing over evil, righteousness prevailing corruption and truth conquering the lie. We don't know when exactly it's going to happen and it's not 100% clear how it's going to happen, we just know it. It's going to happen.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BCOM BCOM

    Perhaps optimism must take on some form of vagueness. As apposed to saying "this will happen at such and such a time" perhaps we should say "this will happen, I know it". For the coming Kingdom of God, every follower of Christ has the hope of good triumphing over evil, righteousness prevailing corruption and truth conquering the lie. We don't know when exactly it's going to happen and it's not 100% clear how it's going to happen, we just know it. It's going to happen.

  • Sherry

    I truly needed to hear this today! Thank you very much for your post :-)

  • Sherry

    I truly needed to hear this today! Thank you very much for your post :-)

  • http://bigcircumstance.com/ Dave Faulkner

    Thanks for reposting it. I found this illuminating as I prepare to preach this coming Sunday on the raising of Jairus' daughter.

  • http://bigcircumstance.com/ Dave Faulkner

    Thanks for reposting it. I found this illuminating as I prepare to preach this coming Sunday on the raising of Jairus' daughter.

  • Robin Lewis

    Powerful. This faith is certainly worth sharing and being reminded of. You do both extremely well!
    Thanks :)

  • Robin Lewis

    Powerful. This faith is certainly worth sharing and being reminded of. You do both extremely well!
    Thanks :)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.walter Gary Walter

    I read Good to Great, for the third or fourth time, several years ago and this principle has stayed with me. I, like the media who Riggio, am often pegged as a pessimist. I prefer the term realist. I try to take steps to overcome the present – no matter how painful (sometimes ;) ).

    Great post!

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.walter Gary Walter

    I read Good to Great, for the third or fourth time, several years ago and this principle has stayed with me. I, like the media who Riggio, am often pegged as a pessimist. I prefer the term realist. I try to take steps to overcome the present – no matter how painful (sometimes ;) ).

    Great post!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/wisdomcalls wisdomcalls

    The comment about the optimists dying of a broken heart really helped me to clarify some of my feeling about goal setting. It is different to have a positive faith in a good outcome than having unrealistic optimism about timelines. I have had a "broken heart" on too many occasions when goals were not met, so for awhile I couldn't bring myself to set goals. Now, I set goals but I do not attach my heart as much to the timeline of the results. Is this a fair approach or am I being too cautious? What is your experience?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/wisdomcalls wisdomcalls

    The comment about the optimists dying of a broken heart really helped me to clarify some of my feeling about goal setting. It is different to have a positive faith in a good outcome than having unrealistic optimism about timelines. I have had a "broken heart" on too many occasions when goals were not met, so for awhile I couldn't bring myself to set goals. Now, I set goals but I do not attach my heart as much to the timeline of the results. Is this a fair approach or am I being too cautious? What is your experience?

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  • http://familysynergy.wordpress.com JD Eddins

    Recently we had a upcoming review by the state. Overall we were well prepared for it, but there were a couple of areas that needed to be addressed before the review team came. It meant some long hours during the days leading up to the review. During this time there was an unexpected issue that came up that had the potential to undo some of the work we had already done. We addressed the new challenge with the belief that since we had corrected the problem once that we would be able to do it again.
    Thankfully everything was done in time for the review.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500838439 Anonymous

    Excellent–realism and hope.

  • http://twitter.com/coachingcm Craig Morton

    What a great post and bang on accurate.  I think that most people don’t do either.  It’s a so-so look at reality and an underlying thought that this might not work.  I needed this post today.  Thanks Michael

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