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Keep the Faith – Getting perspective.

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Faith is a subject not often addressed in business literature.  But as I write, it emerges as an essential idea.  Right now, it feels like the world is on a roller coaster – all downhill with no idea when it will pivot for the up-hill climb.  Mostly, the news is devasting with few signs of good news.  Everywhere you look globally, there is C-19 chaos. In Australia, a little better but is a slippery slide.  In the context of C-19, most things we valued are irrelevant.  At times like this, what to do to manage yourself (let alone anyone else). 

Getting perspective is a significant challenge.

In my struggle to anchor myself, I have reflected on my grandparents and their grandparents and the challenges they confronted. Imagine uprooting yourself/family and moving to another country on the other side of the world. My ancestors came from England and Ireland. As it happens, they all moved here by choice in the time window of the 1850s -1860s- 50 – 60 years after the initial settlement of Australia. I have no concept of the lives they led in their home countries, but the idea of leaving their home, their parents, siblings and friends to venture to a new frontier to start anew is bewildering. (Tourism marketing was not sophisticated then). They stepped into an uncertain and unknown future – a void! It’s not as if Australia existed in that time – it was a series of independent settlements.It was a leap of faith? 

It is hard to conceive, but there was nothing familiar here for them.  Nor were there the facilities, comforts and/or benefits we take for granted – electricity, water, existing infrastructure – none of these things!

If we move forward to my parents’ generation – Post Federation (1901), there was a short period before World War 1 (1914) – hardly the future any of them wanted. Still, in a country fighting for identity and legitimacy, men went to fight a war for the country many had never visited. And women were left to manage. Many were widowed.  Who knows what was driving the young men – adventure, duty? Underlying it all, was a dream for a better world and freedom.

Only ten years after WW1 came the Great Depression (1929) – an experience indelibly printed on the psyche of my parents’ generation – unemployment and a sense of hopelessness – and then WW2 (1939)– a massive wound on a generation of men and woman. That first fifty years of Australian Federation was at best turbulent, and at worst, traumatic.  In many cases, all they wanted was peace, stability and security- the hope for a better future.

While one PM in recent years described living in Australia for many as like winning the lottery, back in the 1850’s it was something less than that. 

The Baby Boomer Generation arrived with a bang shortly after WW2 and our rebellious years were the 60s and the early 70s – the Beatles, smoking dope, Conscription, Vietnam, civil liberties – the generation with the benefits of education and free university education. It is crucial to understand that tertiary education is a phenomenon of the Whitlam era. The baby boomers exploded this conservative stable world, and we challenged it all – we pushed the boundaries, deconstructed institutions traditions and customs.  Everything was up for grabs. Institutions which had survived for hundreds and thousands of years were and still are, challenged every day- marriage and family, the traditions and customs around sex and sexuality, religion, politics and the environment. With the benefits of education, the baby boomers were on a new trajectory.  Many traditions, customs and prejudices are being challenged as we speak.  There are many positive changes, e.g. the role of women in the world is one, and there is still much to be challenged.

We live in a time now where World Views are eclectic and broad-ranging, values are negotiable -and Truth either does not exist or is relative. The baby boomers are blessed as a generation. We have known little hardship and much prosperity.

Why is any of this important? When I was growing up, there was a farewell which emerged in our family and extended family – when people were leaving each other, or there were difficult times.

“Keep the faith” was a standard farewell. I didn’t understand it other than they were saying it was essential to stay Catholic.  It was an odd phrase. Not that I thought that hard about it!

It was not until I read Jim Collins – Good to Great that the penny slowly dropped.

In Ch 4, titled Confront the Brutal Facts (But never lose faith) he tells many stories, but one stands out: the Stockdale Paradox. The message is.

 The Stockdale Paradox 
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.AND at the same timeConfront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

At the core of our being, what holds us together as human beings as communities is a  faith, a belief in something.  In the Stockdale paradox, faith is a central theme.

In the Christian tradition, there is Faith Hope and Love.

What is presented in the Stockwell paradox is beyond any specific religious system?  It is a virtue which is at the core of our shared humanity.  I now know that my family of origin on both sides understood what it meant to have faith.

While our religious institutions are ‘bereft” the core of their existence remains central and robust in the context of human life. In our genuine and present crises – cataclysm – it vital for us all 



Of course, not all good-to-great companies faced a dire crisis like Fannie Mae; fewer than half did. But every good-to-great company faced significant adversity along the way to greatness, of one sort or another – Gillette and the takeover battles, Nucor and imports, Wells Fargo and deregulation, Pitney Bowes losing its monopoly, Abbott Labs and huge product recall, Kroger and the need to replace nearly 100% of its stores, and so forth.  In every case, the management team responded with a powerful psychological duality.  On the one hand, they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality.  On the other hand, they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts.  We came to call this duality the Stockdale Paradox.

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War.  Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, 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.  He 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 that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner”.  He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death.  He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a stepwise system – after x minutes, you can say certain things – that gave the men milestones to survive toward).  He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for an alpha character.  (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth, for twenty-five letters, c doubling in for k).  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 being shot down.  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.

You can understand then, my anticipation at the prospect of spending part of an afternoon with Stockdale.  One of my students had written his paper on Stockdale, who happened to be a senior research fellow studying the Stoic philosophers at the Hoover Institution right across the street from my office, and Stockdale invited the two of us for lunch.  In preparation, I read In Love and War, the book Stockdale and his wife had written in alternating chapters chronicling their experiences during those eight years.

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed.  It just seemed so bleak – the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth.  And then, it dawned on me.  “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.  I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story!  I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus.  If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

“I never lost faith at 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.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture.  Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, 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 a hundred meters 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 go.  And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.  And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause and more walking.  Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists:”We’re not getting out by Christmas: deal with it!”


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