• Dina Smith

The flexible mindset one prisoner of war practices to overcome challenges

Updated: 6 days ago


Photo: Daniel Jensen/Unsplash

(Originally published in Fast Company.)


While held in solitary confinement, malnourished, and routinely put through torture for a seven-year imprisonment, Admiral Jim Stockdale lived out the Vietnam War without any prisoner’s rights or the prospect of a set release date.


How did Stockdale cope with knowledge that he might not survive? And how did survive horrific circumstances but also provide decisive leadership and inspiration to his other prisoners of war?

Stockdale explained his significant insight to author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: “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.”

From Stockdale’s story and insight, Collins coined and popularized the concept of the “Stockdale Paradox,” or the ability to balance optimism with realism in the face of difficulty.

Operating from both sides of the “Stockdale Paradox,” not letting one side outweigh the other, was a defining philosophy of the good to great leaders and companies studied by Collins. This same paradoxical thinking can help us now as we rise to the ongoing challenges of leading our companies and teams while navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

For many of us, we’re in the throes of the toughest test of our leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of bringing businesses back when economies are reeling and a vaccine has yet to be developed. To overcome our current challenge and others, we must embrace both optimism and realism. They’re interconnected and both necessary.

If you ignore the difficulties, you will seem out of touch and naive. On the other hand, if you get mired in the hardship, your pessimism will dishearten and demotivate your team. If you’re putting too much emphasis on either realism or optimism, it will negatively impact you and your team’s ability to focus, make good decisions, and succeed.


In many ways, managing paradox—the act of holding two seemingly opposed concepts at one time—is at the very heart of leadership. For instance, you may juggle task completion and relationships; confidence and humility; control and empowerment; deep focus and expansive thinking.

Paradoxes, also called polarities, are not problems to solve. Instead, they are tensions to manage. And the challenge across them consists in pulling yourself away from “either or” thinking for “both and” thinking.

Consider if there may be ways for you to embrace the “Stockdale Paradox” now. Are there facts or realities you are having a difficult time accepting? Or are you struggling to hold onto hope and experiencing a wavering faith in yourself or your business? If you’re asking yourself if you should focus on staying realistic or optimistic, the answer is likely a little bit of both.

To manage the inherent tension of the “Stockdale Paradox,” you can take on the following steps. First, list three specific actions you can take to reap the benefits of focusing on optimism, and three specific actions you can take to achieve the upsides of realism. Get down to the specific tasks you need to accomplish to lead with more optimism and realism.

Next, identify three early warning signs that will help you spot when you’re overdoing either optimism or realism. For example, what indicators would signal that your optimism has strayed from positive thinking, to impractical and overconfident thinking?

By identifying both actions to take and warning signs that you’ve gone too far, you can work in a targeted and balanced way to make the most of optimism and realism, and to mitigate the risks of switching between on and the other. Paradoxes, despite their confusing nature, can be parsed and understood. Whenever you identify a polarity, instead of questioning which one, ask, how can I do both?


Use a few of these questions to expand your thinking, guide your actions, and, ultimately, meet and overcome challenges—from this pandemic and beyond—by leading with realism and optimism.

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