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The Midweek Motivator – View from the Hanoi Hilton

What’s the point of endless self-exculpatory activity? The world will ultimately judge us by opinions and abstractions largely out of our control. Beryl Markham had it right: That’s what makes death so hard—unsatisfied curiosity. Worth revisiting, among extraordinary leaders who focused on the “now” as opposed to being defined in the mirrors of hindsight, Admiral James Stockdale, was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the prisoner of war camp referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” . Tortured 28 times during his eight year stay, Stockdale found the resolve to help his fellow captives endure that nightmarish ordeal while taking responsibility for American prisoners including the late Admiral John McCain. Out of that brutal, often hopeless existence, thanks to Stockdale and McCain, a lasting reference emerged: “The Stockdale Paradox.”

High-performance people have come to accept, even prosper, from the Stockdale premise which on one hand reminds “we must stoically accept the brutal reality of our business or personal bouleversement”. On the other, like Stockdale, if we can hang on to unwavering faith in the endgame, despite the predatory obstacles in our path, we CAN prevail!

Twenty years ago Jim Collins penned Good to Great, a breakthrough book pealing-back the dynamism of companies and their leaders with remarkable insights on how to do things differently and markedly better. I remember being particularly impressed with a segment on confronting one’s brutal opposition, borrowing from the Stockdale model. For example, Collins wrote, “all good-to-great companies start regenerating by confronting the brutal facts as they are.” When we begin to acknowledge the unvarnished reality of negative situation, the right decisions often become self-evident. And through that process “great” companies start to create a culture where people have the expanded opportunity to be heard, and to become empowered!

Creating a high-functioning climate involves four basic practices: (1) Lead with questions, not with answers. (2) Engage in dialog and debate, never “coercion”. (3) Conduct strategic and tactical autopsies without blame. (4) Build “red-flag” mechanisms that elevate emerging facts to a level where they simply can’t be ignored, prior to a complete implosion.

“In search-of-excellence” companies face just as much adversity as average companies; the difference lies in how exceptional leaders and teams confront that adversity! The best media organizations with whom we’ve worked face challenges head-on and without denial. Behavior that can steer us there is found in The Stockdale Paradox: “by retaining complete and unwavering faith we can and will,prevail in the end, no matter who or what stands in our path.”

Spending time and energy trying to “motivate” people can be a waste of effort! The real question is not “how do we motivate our people?” Instead, assuming we have the right people, often they’re already self-motivated. Instead, our approach probably should be “how do we avoid de-motivating them?” Those two perspectives are very different tions.

In The Hinge of Fate Churchill wrote, “There is no worse mistake in leadership than to hold out false hopes, soon to be swept away.” In 2022 where “wishes” sometimes prove to be false hopes, we can’t improve a negative situation until we accept and understand the obstacle… and what it’s costing us!