Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Stockdale Paradox and the Modern Left

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don'tI'm reading a business book called Good To Great . It has absolutely nothing to do with politics. The book is very enlightening. After man-decades of careful research, Jim Collins and his team arrived at a few basic characteristics that distinguish great companies from merely good ones.

How, for example, did Walgreens outperform the market by a factor of fifteen times, while its competitor Eckerd became an industry laggard? How did Kimberly-Clark dominate the master marketers at P&G? And how could Nucor take on -- and soundly defeat -- US Steel? Simple: all exhibited certain traits in its leadership that allowed it to prevail.

To illustrate the point: had you invested one thousand dollars in Walgreens in 1975, that stake would have been worth over $560,000 by the year 2000. Contrast that performance with the great names of corporate America: Intel ($309,000), GE ($119,000), Coke ($73,000), Merck ($64,000), and the general market ($37,000). Walgreens? Are you kidding me?

So what -- exactly -- allowed companies like Walgreens, Kimberly-Clark, Pitney-Bowes, and Nucor to grow in spectacular fashion?

I'll review the book in detail later. But -- for reasons that will become evident -- I wanted to mention "The Stockdale Paradox", a characteristic of all great leaders as quantitatively assessed by Collins. What is "The Stockdale Paradox"?

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking [US] military officer in the "Hanoi Hilton" [POW] camp during the... Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment..., Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner's rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would 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 could 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 their 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 create a step-wise 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 [using taps and pauses]. At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code... [tapping] "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.

You can understand, then, my anticipation at the prospect of spending part of an afternoon with Stockdale...

...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...

"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."

Another along pause... he turned to me and said, "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith 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 may be."

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

So, exactly what is the Stockdale Paradox? What trait allowed Stockdale to marshall his charges towards eventual liberation without succumbing to insanity and suicide?

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

In other words: maintain your confidence in spite of all odds while maintaining a grasp on reality. Confront the "brutal facts" of your existence while maintaining a fundamental belief that somehow, some way, everything will turn out fine.

While reading this, I had what could only be termed an epiphany. The modern Left are precisely analagous to Stockdale's "Optimists." Their philosophy: if we ignore the global war on terror, the problem will... go away. Consider, if you will, just a few recent events on the world stage:

1: On show at [Iran's] annual military parade were thousands of troops and a range of hardware including six of Iran's Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, which sported banners saying "Death to America", "We will crush America under our feet" and "Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth".

2: In the first such statement by an Iranian president in nearly 20 years, Mahmood Ahmadinejad said his election would mark what he termed a new Islamic revolution. Ahmadinejad said such a revolution would spread throughout the world... "The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny and injustice has reached its end."

3: [Al Qaeda] spokesman, Suleiman Abu Gheith, published an article on the alneda website that claimed: "We have the right to kill four million Americans - 2 million of them children..."

4: A university student from Egypt was ordered held without bond after prosecutors said they found a pilot's uniform, chart of Memphis International Airport and a DVD titled "How an Airline Captain Should Look and Act" in his apartment...

5: Four men, including the head of a radical Islamic prison gang, were indicted on federal charges of plotting terrorist attacks against military facilities, the Israeli Consulate and synagogues in Los Angeles...

6: Iran... resumed its work at the plant near Isfahan, where uranium oxide (called yellowcake) is converted to uranium hexafluoride gas... This gas is the feedstock for centrifuges that enrich uranium to varying degrees: 4 percent for power plants, 20 percent for research reactors and 90 percent or higher for weapons. This was a clear breach of Iran's agreement to suspend "all uranium enrichment related activities"...

The "optimists" don't talk about a nuclear Iran. Nor the fact that Saddam's regime was, for decades, a veritable clearinghouse of terror. They don't mention the extremists' 1996 declaration of war against America and the resulting litany of attacks.

The "optimists" don't dare discuss the changing fabric of the Middle East: Libya disclaiming nuclear weapons and the rising tide of Democracy in Lebanon, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia.

The "optimists" certainly don't state (in public) that Iran is now surrounded by a democratic Afghanistan to the east and a democratic Iraq to the west.

Like Stockdale, Ronald Reagan confronted the "brutal facts" of Communism. And like Stockdale, George W. Bush confronted the "brutal facts" of the global war on extremism.

You never hear the Left talk about the implications of a nuclear Iran; a country that has threatened to crush America and wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. You don't hear the Left talk about any credible, long-term solution to religious extremism. In other words, the Left remains simple "optimists", hoping for a fortuitous outcome in spite of the "brutal facts" confronting the United States.

The electorate should know that, unless the Left is willing to confront the "brutal facts" of today's world, it has no business at the levers of power in this country.

Related reading: Wizbang, Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Clarity & Resolve, Cassandra Page.

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