One of the greatest leadership books on the market today is Jim Collins’ Good To Great. In the book Collins discusses a thought that he termed “The Stockdale Paradox”. The maxim was drawn from the life story of Admiral James Stockdale who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He endured severe torture and designed a system to help his fellow prisoners endure what they were facing. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism and courage after the war. The Stockdale Paradox includes two parts: 1)maintain faith that things will turn out for the best and that you will prevail in the end, and 2)accept the brutal truth about your current reality. Both are necessary to be able to endure and progress in life. Stockdale didn’t just employ his strategy in Vietnam, but in all of life. It enabled him to succeed in his career and eventually become a nominee for Vice President of the US.
I filter most everything I read through the context of relationships, and I believe that The Stockdale Paradox has direct implications for our relationships. For us to have relational success, we must have both components listed by Stockdale. Most relational breakdowns occur when we hold one side of the paradox and ignore the other. Here’s a glimpse at how this can play out in our lives:
Maintaining Faith But Ignoring Brutal Realities
There are lots of examples of people who have faith that their relationships will succeed, but refuse to accept the brutal realities of their circumstances. Most victims of abuse entertain this sort of thinking at times. Another example is when someone leaves their spouse to date/marry another person. At first, it seems flattering, “he left her for me”. “He chose me, we have something special”. While that may be true there are brutal realities to consider as well. You can have faith that he will love you and never leave, but the brutal reality is that he is (or at least has been) a leaver and a cheater. It doesn’t mean that he can’t change. He may make changes and be incredibly faithful and loyal. You can choose to have faith in that thought, but you should also admit the brutal reality to yourself. He left her for me. Sometimes leavers continue to leave and cheaters continue to cheat. It’s at least worth examining the thought that he could do the same thing to you one day.
Accepting Brutal Realities But Lacking Faith
Let’s be honest with ourselves, nobody’s perfect. If we are honest with ourselves, we are not even close. Life is hard and relationships can be a huge challenge. It’s easy to find brutal realities all throughout our relationships. You are not perfect and you will never have a friend, child, or spouse that is perfect either. If we become obsessed with only the negative aspects of our relationships, they don’t have a chance of surviving.
People who only see the negatives in relationships are either constantly demanding or constantly discouraged. We must be honest about the brutal realities, but we must also have faith. We must believe the best of ourselves and of others. We don’t ignore the brutal realities, but we don’t let them define us either.
Relationships are difficult, but totally worth the effort. Engage both sides of the Stockdale Paradox as you work through the ups and downs of your relational life. You’ll be better able to decide which relationships to keep and which to let go of and you’ll enjoy your healthy relationships more deeply.
For more on The Stockdale Paradox read chapter four of Jim Collins' Good To Great.