Discover more from Admired Leadership Field Notes
Unwavering Optimism During Extremely Challenging Times
We look to leaders for many things: confidence, strength, conviction, vision, and judgment, to name just a few. Of the many qualities great leaders exemplify, perhaps none is more important than the ability to remain optimistic in the face of extreme difficulty, while also objectively confronting the challenge.
This duality of optimism and realism is known in many circles as the Stockdale Paradox. Named after Admiral James Stockdale, this Medal of Honor winner survived seven years in a Vietcong prisoner-of-war camp by clinging to two contradictory beliefs: the fact that the horror of his daily life couldn’t be worse and the idea that his life would someday be better than ever.
Accepting the reality of a difficult situation while also maintaining an unwavering belief in a positive outcome is an unusual quality; however, for great leaders, it isn’t a paradox at all. It is a way of being and leading.
The best leaders know that, in any extreme situation, the team looks to them for guidance and strength. Having the mental muscle to accept reality but remain steadfast in resolve for a better tomorrow makes such leaders superheroes in the eyes of others.
Team members instinctively know that leaders can’t possess this quality unless it is real for them. No one can keep up the facade of optimism in the face of peril over time if they don’t believe it.
Leaders know that embracing realism and optimism at the same time is more about commitment and less about belief. Like so many other qualities of leadership, great leaders often commit to an idea before they believe it fully. They let the power of demonstrating the behavior sculpt their conviction.
In the words of Stockdale himself, “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.” Great leaders commit, think, and act like that when a difficult situation arises.