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What it takes to endure the unendurable

Written by Ken DeWitt on November 19, 2015

Leadership

James_Stockdale_Formal_Portrait

In my 30-plus years as an entrepreneur, I’ve faced some pretty tough situations in business.  We all do.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done is to counsel someone facing what seemed like an impossible crisis. Like the time one of my clients lost millions of dollars in one year and had several none-too-happy bankers considering calling their loans.  Or the client who realized that a long-time partnership was not going to work out and they were faced with a messy business divorce.  Or the client who was betrayed by a trusted employee who departed with a significant customer, instantly putting the future of the business and his family’s financial security in jeopardy.

But as difficult as these crises were, none of them can compare to the impossible situations faced by our heroes who have endured enemy captivity as a prisoner of war.  So, with the help of Jim Collins, I’ve taken a lesson from our brave veterans on how to endure the unendurable.

The Stockdale Paradox

Collins, in his acclaimed book Good to Great, tells of what he learned when he had the opportunity to spend some time with Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who survived eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, often tortured and in solitary confinement, and how he used what has come to be known as “The Stockdale Paradox” to help innumerable fellow POWs survive, as well.

What’s the paradox?  It’s the ability to be objective in combining realism with optimism.  According to Dr. Dennis Charney, Dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, this paradox combined with critical social support, creates a resilience that carries you through the challenge.  It’s the ability to say, “I’m in big trouble… but I will prevail,” says Charney.

You can train yourself to be resilient

There’s no way I can do justice to this material in a short blog post, so I’ll let you read this excerpt from Collins’ chapter on Stockdale to learn the ultimate fates of the POWs who were merely optimistic versus those able to embrace the paradox.

Also, do yourself a favor and please watch this five-minute video in which Dr. Charney explains that you can actually use the Stockdale Paradox to train yourself to be more resilient.

Make use of these resources, and the next time you face the unendurable, you’ll be better prepared to endure it.

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