Leaders must confront their brutal truths but never give up their hopes

By Marcus Coetzee, 11 August 2020.

It is becoming much clearer what the next 12 months will look like for our organizations. For some organizations, it looks quite bleak; for others there may be a measure of hope.

I’m writing this article in early August 2020 in South Africa. The coronavirus pandemic appears to be over the hump of the first wave over here, and hopefully in decline. People have learned how to navigate through the dangers and restrictions that confront them each day. It looks like the initial panic is slowly subsiding. 

Leaders are able to distill evidence and trends to infer what their organizations will look like over the next year. For many leaders, this outlook is legitimately distressing. Their organizations, their beneficiaries and customers, their strategic context, may look very different from how they did in the past. 

I advise leaders to consider the Stockdale Paradox, in which I’ve found solace in recent months. This paradox suggests that leaders must confront and accept the brutal truth of what they see.

General James Stockdale survived seven and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in the 1960s. He was tortured regularly. During this traumatic time he noticed that the optimists, who pinned their hopes on being released by a certain date, would tend to give up and die.

Some time after he was released, Stockdale was interviewed by Jim Collins for ‘Good to Great’ – the famous business book. When asked about his time in prison, Stockdale replied with this profound answer:

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 now famous Stockdale Paradox highlights the paradoxical role of leaders. On the one hand, they must help their organizations to clearly see the truth of what is happening. This being the current state of things and the direction the future is taking. They must accept this truth both intellectually and emotionally. Leaders must also create a climate where such conversations are possible.

On the other hand, leaders must never give up hope that they, and the cause they advocate, will ultimately prevail. Remember that they are the custodians of their organization’s vision. This is the desired future state for their organization, beneficiaries and cause. Paradoxically, leaders must be able to convey hope that this vision will ultimately prevail, and outline a path for how this state can be achieved. This path may look very different from the one that was previously followed. This vision will provide a rallying point for their organizations.

To see reality clearly, and to formulate an appropriate vision, leaders must overcome their cognitive biases that would understate the hardships that their organizations may face. The ‘normalcy bias’ encourages us to underestimate the impact of a crisis and the extent to which the future will be different from the past. The ‘planning fallacy’ is our innate tendency to underestimate the complexity of our endeavours while overestimating our capabilities. And the ‘optimism bias’ is our tendency to downgrade risks to ourselves and our organizations. Leaders must be able to let go of ‘false hope’ that things will simply return to the normal or improve in the absence of evidence. 

This paradox has precedent in South Africa. For example, before the end of Apartheid, Mandela was able to accept the state that South Africa was in, while at the same time holding on to the hope of unity and reconciliation. But we do not need to be great leaders to grapple with this same paradox. We have all struggled with it over the past months, in our organizations and in our personal lives. 

Now is a time for leaders to see things more clearly than ever before. They must also carve out realistic vision for their organizations and a route that will take them there, however hard this journey may be. Leaders must be honest with both themselves and their organizations about what is on the horizon. They shouldn’t pin their hopes on things returning to normal. They must also be pragmatic about what their team can do to advance their organizations, while still being hopeful that they will fulfill their mandate.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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