Paradigm Shift

Mar 27, 2020


The letters G-B-U-J-S were tapped out using a towel against a prison cell. What the Stockdale Paradox says about leaders' perseverance and acceptance.

The letters G-B-U-J-S were tapped out using a wet towel against a prison cell. The Tap Code gave prisoners a 25-letter alphabet for communicating with each other during captivity. 1 While being tortured at the Hoa Lo Prison (A.K.A. “Hanoi Hilton”), James Stockdale heard, “G-B-U-J-S,” which meant “God bless you, James Stockdale.” The former A-4 Skyhawk pilot was quite a hero, in part, because his selfless acts which ultimately convinced his captors to “improve their treatment of POWs.” 2

Paradigm shifts (like becoming a prison of war) come in waves of change. During which, leaders are called to their finest hour. Today, the late Admiral James Stockdale’s Vietnam War accounts give us the Stockdale Paradox, suggesting that “optimists” are not mentally prepared for sustained distress. Stockdale explained:

I can tell you who didn’t make it out [alive]. It was the optimists. … They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart. – From Jim Collins‘ Good to Great 3

That is not to say that having a positive attitude predestines one to failure; it is to say that the reality of a difficult situation must be embraced along with the commitment to outlast misfortune.

How do leaders respond to a paradigm shift?

  1. Fiercely Pursue Information: Seeking outside wisdom is not conceding weakness. Actively incorporate up-to-the-minute data and adjusting to new evidence incorporates the expertise of others into your powerful leadership. You don’t have to know everything, but you do need to have great resources and intelligent colleagues.
  2. Practice Radical Acceptance: Acceptance is not approval or agreement. Psychology Today reminds us that avoidance simply delays the inevitable because the situation is upon us whether we like it or not.4 Without a acknowledging the reality or new normal we can’t get to the point of leading others through the new challenge.
  3. Embrace Emotional Intelligence (EQ): The Personal Competencies of EQ are not about being sentimental or sappy. Self-awareness gives us insight into how we are personally responding to change and how it may impact our ability to lead. Self-management requires we regulate those responses, especially during times of stress.

During times of great change, people look to leaders. Good leaders obtain the facts, acknowledge the truth, and respond with great awareness and regulation of their own emotions. Stockdale was imprisoned and tortured for 7 years, an incredible test of mental fortitude. He lead with great faith that he would survive and an acceptance of the brutal facts.

Never confuse “the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail” with the “need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts…” – Admiral James Stockdale

*Sources: 1 Example of the Tap Code (Wikipedia), 2 United States Naval Academy, 3 Jim Collins, 4 Psychology Today.

by Michelle Sugerman • Leading Synergies, LLC • © All Rights Reserved

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