What Stockdale Paradox Tells Us About Crisis Leadership (HBS)


Management issues in the time of COVID-19

“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.” — Admiral James Stockdale.

In August, while most developed nations’ rates of COVID-19 infections are falling, the rate in the United States continues to rise. States that had reopened or begun to, such as California and Texas, have reversed course, and the European Union did not list the United States as one of the 15 “safe countries” whose citizens may enter freely. Meanwhile, many leaders are reporting that their teams—or they themselves—have crashed into a wall of demotivation and despair.

The Stockdale Paradox, made famous in Jim Collins’s bestselling book From Good to Great,and the related discipline of survival psychology shine a light on the present moment and contains wisdom for how leaders can manage the unrolling crisis.


To review the origins of this project, we asked 600 global CEOs across a variety of industries what concerns were keeping them awake at night. Their topics ranged widely, but a handful of overarching mental tasks emerged: Comprehend complex, rapidly changing circumstances accurately, and respond to those circumstances keeping both immediate and long-term goals in mind.

One respondent summed up the challenge in a particularly apt way: “Shifting existing organizational structures from ‘peacetime’ value creation to ‘wartime/survival’ in a very short period of time … As CEOs in this crisis, we have no option but to become the wartime CEO, however ill-equipped or prepared we are.”

What is the Stockdale Paradox?

Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years. Before meeting with the legendary soldier and statesman, Collins read Stockdale’s memoir and found its grim details hard to bear, despite his knowledge that Stockdale’s later life was happy. Collins wondered, “If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he survive when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?” (Emphasis in the original.)

When he posed that question to the admiral, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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.”

Collins asked him about the personal characteristics of prisoners who did not make it out of the camps. “The optimists,” he replied. “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 … 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.”

This formulation became known as the Stockdale Paradox. The admiral elaborated further on the concept when, at a West Point graduation, he was asked if he dwelt on the end of his imprisonment to sustain him, or if he lived day to day?

“I lived on a day-to-day basis. … [M]ost guys thought it was really better for everybody to be an optimist. I wasn’t naturally that way; I knew too much about the politics of Asia when I got shot down. I think there was a lot of damage done by optimists; other writers from other wars share that opinion. The problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.”

How does it apply? (or, Why there is no “normal” to come back to)

Your state, industry, organization—or unconscious mind—may be pinning hopes on some other event or date after which some version of “rescue” will come: a vaccine, a cure, a reliable and cheap test, the acquisition of herd immunity. But to review the brutal facts, none of these developments are likely in the foreseeable short term. The possibility remains that there may never be a fully effective vaccine or cure; this virus may be something that we live with and manage for years to come. Doing so will mean changing elements of our social interaction in unprecedented ways that may well lead to irrevocable social changes.

Already, the follow-on effects of the virus are enough to ensure there will be no normal to return to, as this incomplete list indicates:

Further, the pandemic is playing out against a backdrop of extreme economic, political, social, and meteorological instability. The Black Lives Matter protests that began in the United States in late May and spread worldwide have thrown another massive change agent into the equation. Meanwhile, globalization itself is under threat:

“Globalization describes a world economy increasingly integrated under a common set of rules and principles.” wrote Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, in a personal correspondence. “We’re now experiencing the beginnings of an unwind, primarily because of a growing divergence in the rules and principles that major participants in the global economy operate by. The three most powerful economic actors in the world—the United States, China, and Europe—are growing further apart in their economic strategies, and that’s going to become increasingly obvious as we see how they act under unusual stress.

The Stockdale Paradox—have faith, but confront reality—can be seen in slightly different forms in many cultures.

Stockdale himself was a follower of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who were noted for their concern with understanding reality correctly and shaping one’s response to it optimally. The maxim of Epictetus, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens,” has similarities to both Buddhist doctrine and the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer. (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”). Therapy techniques such as radical acceptance similarly emphasize the point of letting go of desires and beliefs about what should be and seeing reality as it is.

These approaches do not maintain that people should not try to change external conditions, nor that we should have no emotional responses to them. People are neither sheep nor robots. In the words of Marsha Linehan, the founder of radical acceptance: “Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things … You can’t change anything if you don’t accept it, because if you don’t accept it, you’ll try to change something else that you think is reality.”

And while Stoicism may colloquially refer to repressing emotion, such repression was never part of original Stoic doctrine. And neither emotionlessness nor constant positivity are a hallmark of emotional adjustment during crisis. “In general, resilient people have intensely negative reactions to trauma,” writes Emily Esfahani Smith. “They experience despair and stress, and acknowledge the horror of what’s happening. But even in the darkest of places, they see glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustains them.”

How does mechanisms of survival work?

Why do so many wisdom traditions converge on this basic paradox? The discipline of survival psychology—the study of how people react in disasters—may hold a clue. Psychologist John Leach has spent his career studying survival.

“We are all day-to-day survivors. We are alive today because from childbirth our behaviour has adapted to our own particular environment,” Leach writes. “The danger arises when we are forced outside of our adapted environment. This suggests that there are two types of survival behaviour: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic survival is supported by our daily, regular, routine behaviours within our normative environment. Extrinsic survival refers to those new behaviours we need to survive in an environment or situation not previously experienced: from a shipwreck to a kidnapping, from a fire in an office block to an airliner crash in the jungle.”


Part of the exhaustion common now is that our intrinsic survival mechanisms—such basic behaviors as how to enter a building, or bring in the mail, or greet a friend—require conscious thought in a way they have not since toddlerhood. The services and businesses that facilitated our lives—childcare, dry cleaning, the coffee shop on the way to work, gyms, housecleaners—are shuttered or more difficult to access. Masks must be found and worn and cleaned. Simple conversations require managing new technologies and protocols. Even walking down the street requires a level of hypervigilance not required in even the most dangerous neighborhood.

Research by Leach and others indicates that people who survive disasters are able to regain cognitive function quickly after the event, assess their new environment accurately, and take goal-directed action to survive within it. This is the balance that the Stockdale Paradox facilitates: the realism to let go of intrinsic survival mechanisms and the deep-seated faith to learn the new ones.

Applying survival psychology to the current crisis may be extending the mandate of the discipline—the business leaders who are our reading audience are unlikely to face crises of literal, physical survival. However, the pattern of human response to disasters has been shown to be remarkably consistent across cultures, and for disasters of many different causes, effects, and durations, from earthquakes to shipwrecks to kidnapping. There is every reason to believe that the responses to less-direct threats will be similarly structured.

All disasters have in common phases of pre-impact, impact, and recoil, with typical behaviors occurring during each. In short-term disasters, these three phases are followed by rescue and post-traumatic adjustment. This is what is happening in many countries now, where the virus is being contained and normal activities are resuming, with some modifications. In long-term disasters, rescue does not come, or comes long after expected. This is closer to the situation in the United States. We argue that CEOs who are reporting demotivation and depression in themselves or their teams are currently experiencing the shift from short-term to long-term crisis. That shift is difficult at best. The circumstances of this particular shift, particularly the awareness that things could have played out differently, make it especially difficult. Leach writes in Survival Psychology that hope is curvilinear during long-term crises: “[H]ope is strong at the beginning of an ordeal but weakens substantially if relief does not arrive after an acceptable period of time. What counts as an acceptable period seems to vary from person to person.”

Once it becomes clear that rescue will not happen soon, those who survive move into the phases of adaptation and consolidation. Leach’s description of adaptation is worth quoting in full:

“During the period of adaptation there is a slight initial decomposition of a victim’s psychology. There is a breaking of the links of his previously learned behaviour. Once broken, the survivor’s behaviour can be adapted and rebuilt to better fit the new environment. Initially, there is a natural reluctance to believe that the old environment has been torn away during the period of impact and consequently denial, crying, anger, and weakness are frequent reactions. The period of recoil follows, which is a further breakdown in the psychological bonds shown by despair, grief, depression, and so on. Only once the victim is through this period can new survival behaviours be developed.”

More at https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/what-the-stockdale-paradox-tells-us-about-crisis-leadership  –  Courtesy the Harvard Business School, The Stockdale Paradox and survival psychology contain wisdom for how leaders can manage the coronavirus crisis, according to Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams.

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