The optimist vs the realist. Two types of people, with personalities regarded as opposites of one another, just like left and right, or up and down. Totally incompatible points of view. And yet, in the face of overwhelming odds, this seemingly impossible mindset is sometimes necessary.
When Admiral James Stockdale was held prisoner during the Vietnam War, in unspeakable conditions, for 7 years, he managed to maintain faith that he would triumph and survive the camp, but on the other hand he understood the harsh reality of the situation he was in.
This is the Stockdale Paradox. In his own words, “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 may be.”
If you are blindly optimistic even in the direst situations and you believe that “it will all be over by Christmas”, if it isn’t over by Christmas, you will be crushed, and far more prone to failure than the person who fully accepted the realities of the situation.
So how is this applicable to us?
The pandemic has dramatically changed the economic landscape in which we find ourselves, and even when the disease has been eliminated, what we are going to be left with is something radically different than the norms of before.
Maybe you had pinned your hopes on everything reopening after lockdown 2. Maybe you thought the vaccine would be fully rolled out by the beginning of 2021. But neither have happened, and we must accept that this is the way of the world for now and must plan accordingly.
At the same time, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot lose hope, and we cannot give up and sacrifice the long-term survival of our organisations.
The acceptance of your hard situation, combined with the unshakeable belief that you will, in the end, triumph, is vital for business leaders. You must be able to motivate your workforces beyond the doubts that understandably plague them and avoid appearing overly pessimistic or negative – without making promises you may not be able to keep, because this would crush morale further.
Some organisations will fail for reasons beyond their owner’s control. But we can make the situation worse by either giving up early, or going on like before, pretending nothing has changed, and refusing to accept the reality of our situation.
Great business leaders must stay balanced, being neither too positive, nor too pessimistic, if they want to maximise their company’s chances of surviving this pandemic.