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Awhile back, I read a story in one of my favorite leadership/management-type books, Good to Great, in which Jim Collins tells the story of Admiral James Stockdale.  Most Americans know Adm. Stockdale as the absent-minded, kinda goofy running mate of 3rd party presidential candidate Ross Perot back in 1992; however, that’s just a minor footnote to the distinguished career of a true war hero, who was imprisoned and tortured in a North Vietnamese prison for eight years.  Under unspeakable living conditions, he never broke, and even maintained command of his fellow prisoners, fighting for their rights against a ruthless regime. 

His tale is one of facing the worst of life circumstances, and finding how to survive within one’s new context.  I’ve taken a lot of wisdom from the story over the years, and have tried to apply its brutal simple truth to my own life, no matter what the current struggles have been.  Perhaps you can, too…

(this story was originally printed in Good to Great; text accessed online at http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2005/09/stockdale-paradox-and-modern-left-im.html.

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking [US] military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” [POW] camp during the… Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment…, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who could survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda.

At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death.

He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he create 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 [using taps and pauses]. At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code… [tapping] “We love you” to Stockdale on the third anniversary of his [captivity]. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

You can understand, then, my anticipation at the prospect of spending part of an afternoon with Stockdale…

…we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

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

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I 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.”

Another along pause… he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith 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 may be.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas, deal with it!””