How to Lead Through Uncertainty with Confidence

Admiral Jim Stockdale spent eight years as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was tortured over 20 times and walked with a limp until he passed on July 5, 2005.

Jim Collins shared Admiral Stockdale’s story of leading through uncertainty in Good to Great.

The optimists didn’t make it:

Stockdale, the highest-ranking POW of the Vietnam war, explains how to face uncertainty with unrelenting resolve.

“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.”

Jim Collins asked Admiral Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out?”

Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”

“The optimists. … 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 said, “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.”

Stockdale told his fellow POWs, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

3 beliefs while facing uncertainty:

#1. You’re going to be a better leader when this is over.

#2. False hope is destructive. Never lie to yourself or others.

#3. Optimism is the conviction that you will prevail, not that the path forward is easy or certain.

Teams rise when leaders:

  1. Remain agile.
  2. Go with their highest points of clarity.
  3. Acknowledge they don’t know. Avoid pretending you have answers.
  4. Face brutal realities.
  5. Spend most of their time supporting the team.

What should leaders avoid during uncertain times?

How might leaders face uncertainty with resolve and skill?