Starting a new year can be a time of mixed emotions. I know because I greeted six consecutive New Year’s sitting in North Vietnam prisoner of war camps. Fear was the foremost emotion in those first three years, and the others were somewhat daunting, too.
Yet, we always kept hope that the new year would bring an honorable end to the war. In spite of the difficult conditions, our leaders stayed positive and inspired us to bounce back as they did so often. They also taught us to resist the enemy and survive so that someday we could return with honor.
Dealing with paradoxes
One of the difficult challenges for leaders is paradox — the fine balance between being:
- humble and strong.
- decisive and willing to listen to the ideas of others.
- confident and vulnerable.
- tough and compassionate.
- detached and sensitive.
A healthy paradox to start the new year is facing the future with both hope and realism. In his best-selling book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins addressed the process that kept the Vietnam POWs going year after year, and he named it after his friend and one of our senior leaders, Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale. Collins insightfully categorized the importance of this dynamic tension as the “Stockdale Paradox:”
“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.”
So as you look forward to 2014, are you naturally optimistic and seeing the positive potential of what can happen this year?
If so, then you may need to sit down with some friends and teammates who are more realistic to help you confront the brutal realities of your situations. If you do not have them, you need a strategy and a plan in place to address the tough days ahead.
Find the half-full glass
On the other hand, if all you can see is barbed wire and hard times ahead, then you probably need to begin the new year with a time of thanksgiving to count your blessings and recalibrate your attitude.
Determine where you can get a foothold of hope and optimism to inspire yourself and others. Optimism generates positive emotions related to faith, belief, conviction and confidence, and it’s from these emotions that we gain the inspiration to persist when things look bleak and hold on until we can ultimately prevail.
Yes, diligence and dedication are important, but never forget that inspiration is the source of power. Stockdale was right — “faith that we would prevail” is the essential principle of successful business leadership. It enabled us to resist and survive as POWs and return with honor.
This same thinking enables poor men to become rich, sick people to become well, last place teams to become first and each of us to reach our potential as human beings and business leaders. It’s more than positive feelings — it’s the choice of belief.
Most New Year’s resolutions never last as long as 90 days, but given the impact your attitude and behaviors can have on the year 2014, why not commit to lead with honor by following the Stockdale Paradox? Deal with the brutal realities of your situation, and choose a positive belief of great hope and expectations that you will prevail.
When the hard times come, it’s the leader’s attitude that lifts others to victory. The POW leaders shined the light through dark times, and that’s a lesson for all times.
As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, leadership and human performance development, and succession planning. His latest book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” For more information, visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.
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