What a Prisoner of War Can Teach Us about Becoming a Great Company

Alan Dinnie
Alan Dinnie
What a Prisoner of War Can Teach Us about Becoming a Great Company

In his best selling book 'From Good to Great', Jim Collins demonstrates what it takes to become a truly great company. An insightful aspect of the book is Collins discussing the importance of what he calls the "Stockdale Paradox."

"Great companies retain faith that they will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be."

The Stockdale paradox is named after Admiral Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military official in the infamous 'Hanoi Hilton' prisoner of war (POW) camp in Vietnam. During his eight years of imprisonment he was tortured more than twenty times and lived without POW rights, a set release date, and no certainty that he would see his family again.

He did everything he could to support other prisoners while fighting his captors. One time, he cut himself with a razor and deliberately beat himself with a stool, just so he could not be shown on video tape as an example of a "well treated prisoner".

He invented a communication method using tapping to help comrades dealing with the isolation. At one time during an imposed silence, prisoners mopping the floor swept the yard using the tapping code and swishing out 'we love you' to Stockdale on the 3rd anniversary of him being shot down.

When asked by Jim Collins how he dealt with the seemingly hopeless situation, he replied: "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end."

He was asked about who did not make it out, and he replied: "Oh, that’s easy. The optimists; they were the ones who said, 'we are 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 would die of a broken heart."

In the book Stockdale elaborated on those comments and said: "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can not afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

Whilst this might appear to be more of a personal lesson than a business lesson; Collins and his research team showed that living the Stockdale paradox is exactly what great companies do.

Ask yourself these questions related to your business:

  • Do you and your employees retain faith that your business will prevail?
  • Are you and your employees relentlessly disciplined at confronting the most brutal facts of your current business reality?

If you are doubtful as to whether you are living the Stockdale Paradox, consider the following questions about:

  • Your faith to prevail:
  • What is it about you as a business owner that prevents you from having that faith?
  • What is it about your business that prevents you from having that faith?
  • What do you need to do which will enable you to have that faith?
  • How does your business need to change so that you will have that faith?
  • Confronting the brutal facts:
  • What 3 things have you have been avoiding in your business? What can you do today to bring these issues out into the open?
  • What 'red flag mechanisms' (a practice that invites opportunities for honest feedback from customers or employees, designed to give attention to issues before it's too late to fix them) can you put in place to make sure you are confronting reality?

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