I am an optimist. So why am I suffering?
Tuesday, September 11, 2007/
Dear Aunty B,
I have a very optimistic personality, which I have always considered a great leadership attribute. Even when things are awful, I always see the silver lining.
And I notice I share this in common with loads of entrepreneurs. But recently I have noticed my staff only wanting to tell me good news. Yesterday I nearly lost a major client because one of my staff did not tell me the relationship was in trouble. (I suspected things were not going well and now I am still not sure I can save it.)
When I questioned my staff member, she told me it was my fault – that I told her to broadcast the good news and fix any problems herself. I have since uncovered several disturbing problems in the business. which will cause the business and myself some pain over the next few months.
Now I am wondering: how do I maintain my optimistic leadership but make sure my staff tell the brutal facts?
Let me share with you a little story. It comes from Good to Great, by Jim Collins.
Have you heard of the Stockdale Paradox? It refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military officer kept in a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War.
He was tortured more than 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment. He lived with no set release date, no prisoner rights and with no idea how the story would end.
Yet he did everything possible to ensure that he would create conditions to increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken.
He instituted rules that helped people deal with torture because no one can resist it forever. He introduced a code by which prisoners could tap messages to each other to reduce isolation and, well, you get the drift.
Anyway he got out, became a national hero and met up with Collins, who asked him how the hell he survived. The answer: “I never lost faith in the end of the story.”
Then Collins asks a really interesting question: so who didn’t get out? “The optimists,” replied Collins. “The optimists were the ones who kept saying, ‘We are going to be out by Christmas, we are going to be out by Easter. In the end they died of a broken heart.’
Stockdale’s lesson? Never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
Collins’ summation from this is that good to great leaders are able to strip away the noise and focus on a few things that will have the greatest impact. And they can do that because they operate under the Stockdale Paradox. They never let one side overshadow the other. So while your optimism is a great leadership trait, never let it overshadow what is happening right under your nose.
Explain the difference to your staff so they can operate under the same principles.
One last thing. Dump the silver lining and replace it with this: “We’re not getting out by Christmas. Deal with it!”
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