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The Stockdale Paradox
by Art Ticknor

I came across the term "Stockdale paradox" when reading Good to Great by Jim Collins recently. I recalled Jim Stockdale as a third-party vice presidential candidate in a presidential campaign sometime in the past who had been exceedingly inarticulate in a televised debate. And I remembered that he'd been a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Jim Stockdale, 1999 It surprised me when I did some research and found that the campaign was way back in 1992. Stockdale was running on a Reform Party ticket with Ross Perot against incumbent President George Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. There were three debates among the presidential candidates followed by one debate among their running mates: Vice President Dan Quale, Democractic nominee Al Gore, and Stockdale. I had watched the debates on TV, and my impression – possibly altered by time – was that Stockdale would have made the best President of the six men.

The Perot-Stockdale team split the Republican vote, opening the way for the Clinton-Gore election. And that was about the last I heard about Stockdale until reading a John McCain autobiography recently and then the Collins book. An Internet inquiry turned up an interesting 1999 interview of Stockdale by Jim Lehrer, indicating he spent 4 years in solitary confinement in North Vietnam, and a total of 7-1/2 years in prison there, after the plane he was piloting was shot down. In the interview, Stockdale said that he thought one of the most important qualities for political leadership was physical courage.

The online Illinois Review featured a 2006 tribute to Stockdale, who had died in 2005. He was born in 1923, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947, and became a prison of war in 1965. He continued his military career after his release in 1973, retiring as a Vice Admiral in 1979. He then served as President of The Citadel military college before becoming a fellow of the Hoover Institution think-tank on the campus of Stanford University from 1981 through 1996.

Jim Stockdale c. 1973 The New York Sun obituary-editorial, commenting on the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Stockdale, stated:

The Medal of Honor citation refers to Stockdale's efforts at "self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes." In plain English, what he did was use a wooden stool to beat his face to a pulp so he couldn't be used in an enemy film. One reason that he is so admired by his fellow prisoners is that, when he inflicted what the citation calls "a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate," the enemy backed off in its torture and harassment of other Americans it was holding. Whence Stockdale summoned his enormous courage is one of those mysteries of the human spirit....

Jim Collins, who was a Stanford professor at the time, interviewed Stockdale during the research for Good to Great, which was published in 2001. He read the autobiographical In Love and War, written by Stockdale and Stockdale's wife, before the meeting and wondered how Stockdale had found the courage to survive.

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

I didn't say anything for many minutes, and 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, now completely confused, given what he'd said a hundred meters earlier.

"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 long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, "This is a very important lesson. 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."

Collins and his research staff later realized that the survival paradox Stockdale had described also explained the distinguishing behavior of the executives they were studying who had led their companies' transitions to longstanding outperformance compared with other companies that remained mediocre or deteriorated.

Working both sides of that paradox – faith that success is possible along with confronting the unpalatable facts of the current situation – is also the formula that leads to success in the search for self-definition.


See an essay by Shawn Nevins relating the leap From Good to Great to the spiritual search.

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot | In Love and War | A Vietnam Experience | Good to Great by Jim Collins

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