Leaders must be messengers of hope

Thursday, May 14, 2020

By: Arthur J. Athens


In his classic business book, Good to Great, Jim Collins related a fascinating conversation with Admiral Jim Stockdale. A prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, Stockdale spent seven and a half years in Hanoi. During this incarceration, Stockdale experienced isolation, discomfort, and deprivation, but as the senior naval officer, he took command and led his fellow POWs with excellence, compassion, and integrity. Upon repatriation, he received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for bravery.

When Collins asked Stockdale about his experience, Stockdale shared:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would go out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life . . .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 would refer to this concept in his book as the “Stockdale Paradox” — keeping faith while acknowledging the harsh reality of the moment.

We live in a time where we must confront some harsh realities. The United States has experienced over a million cases of COVID-19 and more than 80 ,000 deaths. In a recent report, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota warned there is a high probability we will face another 18 to 24 months of significant COVID-19 activity. The Congressional Budget Office projects the second quarter unemployment rate will exceed 10 percent and the gross domestic product will decline by 12 percent. Because of the virus’s deleterious impact, many in America maintain a very pessimistic view of the future.

In this challenging and uncertain time, perhaps the most important responsibility industry leaders have is to provide hope — hope anchored in reality, but expressed in a way that instills confidence in others that they will overcome and flourish once again. Though I would never imply our current adversity rivals that of those held captive for years in Hanoi, I believe today’s industry leaders can learn from Admiral Stockdale how to be messengers of hope.

Stockdale’s depth and strength of character were the foundation for his leadership in the prison camp and undergirded his ability to generate hope. His Midwestern upbringing, his experiences at the Naval Academy and as a naval officer, and his education in the classics — including the Bible and the works of Plato, Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Cervantes, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and many others — all had a significant influence on Stockdale’s character. In his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, he relates leaders in crisis need to have “the character, the heart, to deal spontaneously, honorably, and candidly with people, perplexities, and principles.”

Stockdale knew if his fellow POWs were to have hope, they needed a clear picture of what should be on the other side of the crisis — a vision for an end state beyond their captivity. For the POWs, that vision statement became “Return with Honor.” These three words communicated the confident hope the POWs would prevail in the prison camp and return to the United States with their integrity intact. As the leader, Stockdale would supplement that vision with other directives and precepts, as he believed leaders needed to “not just exhort men to be good, but elucidate what the good is.” To Stockdale, “unity over self,” what he termed “the flip side of what’s in it for me,” stood as the fundamental precept.

Having a vision and set of precepts fall short unless the leaders can communicate these messages. Ingeniously, Stockdale and his colleagues created a 5x5 matrix composed of twenty-five letters (with C and K interchangeable) and “tapped” the row and column to send messages from cell to cell to ensure connectivity and establish community. Stockdale said POWs “risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other, to maintain group integrity, to retain combat effectiveness.”

And having the vision, the precepts, and a means of communication is necessary, but not sufficient. The last key is the leader’s example—and Stockdale was a role model of selflessness, courage, and sacrifice. Perhaps an excerpt from his Medal of Honor citation summarizes it best:

Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners' of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture . . . Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound . . . to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War.

These are Stockdale’s lessons, applicable to industry leaders today and worth careful consideration if we are to be messengers of hope. We need to fortify our character, provide a vision, communicate with clarity, and lead sacrificially. The result will be teams and organizations facing adversity with courage and determination and buoyed by faith and hope. 

At the Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, which I had the honor of leading for over a decade, we had memorabilia from the Stockdale family and additional material from other POWs. One framed poster in the entranceway to the Center had a sketch of a POW in his cell block with the knob on the outside of the door, but no handle on the inside. The quote next to the sketch read, “There’s no such thing as a bad day when there’s a doorknob on the inside of the door.”

As we look at the doorknobs on the inside of our doors, we should be inspired to step up, like Admiral Stockdale did fifty-five years ago, and become messengers of hope.


Related event: Join Col. Arthur Athens for a special webinar on leading at a distance on June 18 at 12 p.m. CDT. Learn more and register here.


Colonel Arthur J. Athens is a retired Marine Corps officer, served as a White House fellow during the Reagan Administration, and most recently led the Naval Academy’s Vice Admiral Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. He has been a highly rated keynote speaker at multiple AME International Conferences – including, most recently, AME Chicago 2019 – and has presented at a number of AME Champions Club events.


Views and opinions shared in Target Online are the author's and do not necessarily reflect AME policies and positions.