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Staring at the Sun: The Stockdale Paradox

I’ve always been wary of optimism. It tends to filter out too many unwelcome facts and encourages bluster. Useful critical thoughts, from within and from without, become discouraged as negative thinking.

Yet, I’ve found that my preference for unvarnished truth (if you can ever find it) grates with people I work with sometimes. They assume I’m a pessimist when I gleefully enumerate all the things that can go wrong. I’m not. I just like confronting reality, as Bossidy and Charan put it in their book of the same name.

In too many organizations, confronting reality is an exercise in staring at the sun. Can’t be done for long. Have to put the filter of optimism in place to make it bearable. But, I’ve never been able to find a compromise position that confronts reality without scaring people off or discouraging them.

Until I discovered a formula of words from Jim Collins that he calls The Stockdale Paradox. Level 5 leaders – Collins’ low-ego, high-performance quiet leaders – practise, he says “a willingness to look at the brutal reality of the situation, but remain hopeful and determined that one will overcome it.”

I like that. It’s still quite hard to translate that position into an inspiring rallying cry. Stoicism is not inspiring. Which is why most corporate leaders default to presenting an upbeat view.


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