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:
- Remain agile.
- Go with their highest points of clarity.
- Acknowledge they don’t know. Avoid pretending you have answers.
- Face brutal realities.
- Spend most of their time supporting the team.
What should leaders avoid during uncertain times?
How might leaders face uncertainty with resolve and skill?
Leaders should avoid;
Acting/ planning/ talking like things will again be how they were, they won’t.
Only looking at the downside, every challenge grows new skills and opportunities.
Putting off what can be done “until this is over”. (Find a new way)
Finally, avoid the trap of not improving yourself during this time, your team needs you to keep growing and getting better.
Thanks Dan. Personally, I hate the excuses people use to NOT ACT. Leaders are people of action. (Not wild unfocused action, but action.)
Thank YOU!, your blog is always a source of thought and inspiration. Much appreciated sir.
Have a good Friday. Hope you get a chance to chill this Easter weekend.
A good appropriate & timely post under lockdown period!
Leaders need to ensure that no negativity spreads among the team members during uncertainty. They need to instil better confidence by showing the right way to face difficult situations.
The success mantra can be: Assess [Situation]- Alternatives [Review Possible Options]- Act [Solution Steps] – Applaud [Success].
Sicere good prayers for Today and Happy Easter!
Thanks Dr. Asher. Love the alliteration. 4A’s!!
Positive environments are never an accident. Have a great weekend my friend.
Thanks Dan. Great story about Admiral Stockdale and resilience. How the POWs made it through is nothing less than a miracle. The late Senator John McCain was another story of perseverance and even determined resistance. Honesty, not always popular, but appreciated can go a long way in sustained operations. Along the journey, it is also important to provide consistency while recognizing where individuals are in their emotions. As a society, we must build more resiliency to be successful in the future.
Thanks Kishla. I appreciate the reminder about Senator John McCain. There are so many individuals that show us the way. People who have grit, generosity, and integrity. It helps to think about them.
Dan reminds me of The Wallenda Factor. The Wallendas, a high wire family who originally performed with no nets or safety harnesses, were taught by their founder, Karl, to put all your energy and focus on getting to the other side. If you focus on not falling, you will fall. Hard to do but can be very helpful in a bad crisis. Brad
Thanks Brad. Love this idea. Focus on getting to the other side. The problem with problems is they are magnetic. It takes self-awareness, resolve, and a strategy not to become problem-focused.
Dan – read your post and began a campaign to cheer on our salesmen – they are so accustomed to the phone ringing / servicing / helping / taking those orders. It is s difference world when they are looking for numbers and their phones are quiet — you are such an encouragement – Sunday is coming!
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.” I spent three hours on a Saturday Night with Admiral Stockdale at a Christian Fellowship meeting in October of 1975 at the USNA in Annapolis. In walked this man with white hair and a smile so big. Everyone stood at attention and he said at ease. He prayed with us and then told his story of faith, of a positive attitude and of belief in oneself against all odds. I still remember vividly that experience which has molded me since. As impactful as any evening or day I’ve ever had in my life.
They should avoid finger pointing and complaining. Acknowledge the current situation, don’t make promises of things you can’t control and be available.
I can tell you my uncle Konrad was a P.O.W. in a Russian concentration camp in the 1940’s, he survived horrible conditions for a few years of mal-nutrition and in humane living conditions.
When he was releaed he had lost all his teeth, hair and weighed 90 lbs.
He migrated to Canada and regained his hair, acquired new teeth and eventually found love and married! The moral is “none of us are guaranteed a tomorrow, yet believing today we can survive and overcome difficult times”!
Lifes lessons are not written in stone, sometimes we have to write them.
Rest in Peace Konrad!
Hello Dan and Friends – I know all of this sheltering in place or simply ‘staying home’ is uncomfortable for many. We should pay attention to that discomfort – because it can lead us to think about things we seldom think about when living in a ‘normal’ world of perpetual distraction. Dad spent four years in solitary, many of those days in pinch cuffs and leg irons. His jailers labeled him (their words): “the blackest of criminals who sought to incite others against the Camp Authority.” As we sit on comfortable couches and bemoan our lack of opportunities to interact, I suggest we embrace this difference, this discomfort. Interesting that we have time to let deeper thoughts occupy our attention – how matters of faith and love seep into our consciousness effortlessly – how when our security is threatened, we think about things that actually MATTER to us much more than 95% of what we spend our time on otherwise. Facing our brutal facts with the faith that we will prevail and come out stronger IS OUR LEGACY. Turn off the TV and spend some time in meditation or prayer – think of the sacrifices made by ALL our forebears over the last few hundred years and contemplate how we can honor them by making the world a better place for all of humanity. Gratitude and humility will help us in both sickness and recovery. Tell your loved ones how much you love them. Tell your friends how much you appreciate and care for them. Support those who are on the scary front lines of this disease by being there for THEIR families and for them when the time is right. Dad would appreciate that his words have some staying power – but more than that, he would look each of us in the eye and wonder what we are doing TODAY to lift the spirits of others and improve the lives or those less fortunate. Stay Strong. Stay Loving.
Great article, Dan. As a people leader trying to now manage a remote team, there is a lot of frustration and confusion. While it is not comfortable, I keep telling myself that 1. I need to keep acting and 2. I will be a better leader when the dust settles. Great work!
Could you speak more on “highest points of clarity?” Or a link to where you discuss this more?
Hi H. Thanks for asking. Every decision is a choice between multiple options. We always go with out highest point of clarity. We go with the one that seems most likely to produce desired results.
In times of turbulence, there’s more fog. We still have multiple options, but our all our options seem less certain than they do when things feel more stable/predictable.
The point of certainty is lower in turbulence. If we aren’t careful, uncertainty dominates our thinking. We don’t decide or perhaps we act defensively.
You still have a point of certainty. Go with it. Even if you feel less certain than you do during normal times.
To think of it another way. During normal times you are willing to move forward when your point of certainty reaches a 7 out of 10, for example. You say, I have enough certainty to move forward.
During disruption your point of certain might only reach a 5 our of 10, but it’s your highest point of certainty. Go with it.
Say open. Let people know you’re remaining flexible. Avoid making decisions that lock you in to a long-term path. But go with your highest point of clarity.
Hello Dan! Thank you for sharing this lovely story about Admiral Jim Stockdale! His story highlights the importance of staying grounded in reality as a means of persevering through life’s storms. The life lessons learned from Admiral Stockdale are especially relevant within the context of this pandemic. Many individuals are constantly wondering when will the shelter in place mandates get lifted, when will the country open up the economy again, and how long will the coronavirus last. The reality is that we honestly do not know. Just as government officials release an expected date to allow folks to go back to their initial normal routines and the public excitedly anticipates this date, a political leader announces that the original date has been pushed back. Living through this period, I now understand your point that false hope is destructive in hindering your ability to persevere. I think two major aspects of Admiral Stockdale’s mentality is hope and gratitude. Being comfortable with uncertainty is an important skill to develop and practice. Often when we do not know something, we rush to Google it or ask someone. However, sometimes it is important to be confident in knowing that everything happens for a reason and that surviving storms help develop your character and resistance. I appreciated your clarification in redefining optimism. Optimism is not simple, assuming that the future path will be easy, but instead know having faith in your destiny. Practicing humility is also important in the context of leading during times of uncertainty. Ultimately, it is ok to be transparent with your team or audience and share the things you do not have answers to. Especially during times of uncertainty, emphasizing the end goal or overall mission is a great way that leaders can instill and manage hope in others. During this pandemic, I often see local government officials using language like “We are almost there” or “Keep staying home and together we can flatten the curve” to maintain the public’s hope. Engaging others as active players in creating change is an effective way to lead with confidence in times of uncertainty.
I think remaining realistic, but hopeful is a crucial approach in leadership when facing uncertainty. I also think it is important to focus on the aspects you do have control over during times of uncertainty. It helps by redirecting your focus and energy on something you can actually influence the outcome of. Much of the anxiety associated with uncertainty is due to loss of control and lack of safety (which is associated with predictability and structure). As leader, your team will look to you for that safety in the form of structure and guidance. I do believe it is important for leaders to reach out to each other for support, especially during uncertain times. Having a network of “realistic optimists” to bounce ideas off of and to better create order from the chaos can make all the difference in being able to lead with confidence during uncertainty. Leaders need to tend to their own need for safety and structure, and having a group of other leaders that you can reliably trust can certainly help provide such support.
Leaders should avoid many things during uncertain times, one of the worst being to unnecessarily worry the lower level employees with things that do not directly affect their day to day jobs. Communication should be a two way street. Yet, when there are higher level decisions that need to be made and acted on, the common frantic reaction to such situations that inexperienced employees have to those situations is typically not what is needed in those situations.
What should be passed down from higher management and what should not be passed down from higher management is different for every manager. It is also different for every business. Some businesses are operated and ran by brothers and cousins who communicate freely and openly about everything. Other businesses are run by facts only business professionals who have so much turnaround with employees they can not remember any of their names. These situations can be tricky regardless of the manager. One employee considered twitchy can be rock solid in a crisis situation. Another employee considered rock solid may act crazily when presented with a situation that directly affects his or her family. This should always be considered by the manager when deciding to inform employees of issues within the company.
Another consideration is how their performance is affected by this information. Some people focus during stressful situations. Other employees fold. Managing their reactions is critical to the continuation of productivity during a company crisis type situation. Just because a company may be being sold or going under, employees should be managed effectively during such times so as not to increase any panic reactions and to continue productivity during any transitional period. Especially during an uncertain transitional period where peoples jobs may be possibly at risk, the feeling of security may be just the thing people need to get through another day.