Quintin Shepherd

Quintin Shepherd

I had a deep text-to-text and text-to-self connection in the past week, which gave me the opportunity for some deep thought on a bike ride over the Labor Day Holiday.

First, I was reminded about the Stockdale Paradox when reading “The Art of Resilience” by Ross Edgley. The book is his story about swimming around Great Britain (a feat of 1,780 miles over 157 days) and what he learned about physical and mental resilience.

This took me back to Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great” where he tells the story of Admiral James Stockdale who was a prisoner of war for over seven years during the Vietnam War. Collins writes, “It just seemed so bleak — the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth … how on earth did he deal with it?”

When Collins asked this question to Stockdale, he replied, “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.” To which, Collins followed with a second question: “Who didn’t make it out?”

“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.”

This phenomenon is known as the Stockdale Paradox, and it works like this, on the one hand, they stoically accept brutal facts and reality. On the other hand, they kept a firm faith in the endgame and a commitment to prevail, despite enormous challenges. Through the rest of this pandemic, I suspect there will be three groups that appear (in business and education). Two of the three groups will show maladaptive coping strategies, to their peril. One will show adaptive coping strategies and emerge.

There will be instances where leaders lose hope, become pessimistic and unable to rally their teams. This has already happened to both businesses and some education systems.

Equally, I believe we will see organizations who lose critical resources and the faith of their followers from being too optimistic in their planning. Their misjudgment or unwillingness to acknowledge the struggles and extended timeframe of the pandemic will damage their ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

Finally, I believe a third group will appear, one with a stoic determinism to confront the brutal facts and resilience beyond measure to keep their faith. They will come out of this pandemic stronger than ever, although worse for the wear.

It feels as though we are facing a global crisis testing us on every front and the extensive list of challenges seems endless and insurmountable at times. It is easy to let our mind run off in a doom loop of despair and hopelessness.

This is a time to take a moment to remember the Stockdale Paradox. It is important to confront feelings of denial and embrace unobstructed view of next steps.

For me, this means seeking advice, consolation, support, and community. Always stronger together, it is my firmly held belief we must offer our talents to the collective. Let us remember and remind each other to call upon our creativity, our grace, and our generous hearts.

Finally, we will, and we must confront the brutal facts and never let go of the knowledge we will prevail.

Quintin Shepherd is the superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District.

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