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Two Steps Forward

Sustainability, COVID-19 and the 'Stockdale Paradox'

You don't have to be a war hero to get through a crisis, but you can learn from one. Spoiler: Optimism alone doesn't help.

Let’s not sugarcoat things: It’s a brutal time. And no matter how you view this moment or refer to it — "radical uncertainty" and "paradigm shock" are two worthy terms I’ve heard in the past week — it’s clear that something unknown and unknowable is taking place.

Each day is a veritable roller coaster: encouraging news followed by discouraging news; hopefulness followed by despair; confidence followed by doubt.

And by then it’s time for lunch.

This isn’t exactly novel for those in the profession of sustainability. We’re used to plying our trade against all odds, often swimming upstream, perhaps even within our own organizations. Our budgets and headcounts are subject to the vagaries of economic cycles. (See our newest report about that, just published.) If you’ve been around awhile, this isn’t your first rodeo, economy-wise. In that regard, this is just another of those trying moments.

Of course, this moment is not "just another." It’s a harrowing turning point in modern human history, one that’s bound to reverberate for years and, along the way, potentially transform lives, communities, businesses, politics and mindsets.

Hence, the roller coaster, with all of its ups and downs, its terrifying and exhilarating turns.

It was in that context that I was reminded recently of Adm. James Stockdale.

Stockdale was a United States Navy aviator in the Vietnam War, during which he was shot down and held prisoner in Hanoi for 7.5 years. (Those of us of a certain age also recall him as the vice-presidential running mate in the insurgent 1992 presidential campaign of H. Ross Perot.)

The world we will soon step back into is likely to look largely the same but be dramatically different from the one we left behind just a few short weeks ago.
Stockdale was already a decorated war hero. As a POW, he was the highest-ranking naval officer in the Hỏa Lò Prison, known more notoriously as the "Hanoi Hilton," and later in solitary confinement in a special facility about a mile away, along with 10 other U.S. prisoners who were deemed resistors to their captors. He was tortured repeatedly.

Years later, after his release, Stockdale was interviewed by Jim Collins, the business guru and bestselling author of "Good to Great." As Collins tells it, what seemed "particularly bleak" about Stockdale’s imprisonment was "the endless nature of it."

"In the [prison] camp, you wouldn’t know when or if you’d get out, or when you might see your loved ones again," explained Collins. "You wouldn’t know the end of the story."

Collins wondered, "How on earth did he deal with it?"

He asked Stockdale, who replied: "I never wavered in my faith — not only that I would get out, but that I would turn it into the defining event of my life that, in retrospect, I would not trade."

Tyranny of the optimists

Collins then asked, "Who didn’t make it out as strong as you?"

"Oh, that’s easy," Stockdale replied. "The optimists. 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."

Stockdale’s mindset — the ability to simultaneously hold a relentless faith in a successful outcome along with an unvarnished recognition of the present moment — became known as the Stockdale Paradox.

As Stockdale explained it:

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.

That wisdom certainly seems relevant right about now.

I’ve taken Stockdale’s insight to heart, and it’s been enormously helpful. And it applies not just to this moment but to sustainability overall. Sustainability can be a hard, bumpy road, and there’s no indication that it’s going to get easier or smoother over time. We don’t yet know whether the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate or hinder efforts to address the climate crisis, the inequity crisis and other festering environmental and social ills that have long been hiding in plain sight but laid bare over the past few months.

That is, we don’t yet know the end of the story. All we know is, as Collins described Stockdale’s plight, "the endless nature of it."

So many challenges, so many unknowns, with no end in sight. The world we will soon step back into is likely to look largely the same but be dramatically different from the one we left behind just a few short weeks ago. We find ourselves in uncharted territory — professionally, economically, socially, psychologically.

And yet.

My takeaway, this spring morning, is to keep the faith — to march inexorably forward, eyes unflinchingly on the prize. And to align that with a pragmatic recognition of the brutal moment we’re in, including all the hard work and uncertainty that lies ahead.

Easy to say, harder to do. But in the spirit of Stockdale’s unimaginable journey, it will enable us to come through this, strong of spirit, clear-eyed and energized for the journey that, for many of us, is a life’s calling.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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