The Stockdale Paradox | HEI Traction


When working with clients at the beginning of the EOS process the first book we read together is Good to Great, by Jim Collins.  In chapter four, Collins introduces the “Stockdale Paradox” — a reference to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking US military officer in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War.

Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Adm Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.

Adm Stockdale shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive, unbroken while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so his captors couldn’t film him as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” Additionally, he exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death.

Adm Stockdale instituted rules that would help fellow prisoners deal with relentless torture (no one can resist pain indefinitely). His “step-wise system” helped his men survive torture sessions by sharing insignificant information with captors every few minutes — which gave them a goal to fixate on.

The Admiral also developed an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation their captors tried to create. The prisoners used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. Tap-tap was the letter “a” tap-pause-tap-tap equaled “b,” tap-tap-pause-tap was “f,” and so on. At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his captivity.

After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Collins wondered how Adm Stockdale was able to survive this period of captivity without knowing how the story would end.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Finally…I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused given what he’d said earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. 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.”

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