Survival & Thrival: Harsh Reality, Bright Future

Kurt Wilkin

“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.”

I love this quote. It comes from Jim Stockdale, a U.S. Navy vice admiral, who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years, and later received the Medal of Honor. It was made famous by author Jim Collins in his acclaimed book Good to Great, where he introduced the concept known as the “Stockdale Paradox.” It’s based on the idea that even though you can’t lose your faith that things will work out, you have to confront the harsh reality of the present head on.

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re all living our own versions of the Stockdale Paradox. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: These are hard times. The pandemic is causing unprecedented upheaval in our personal lives and our businesses. After going through the dotcom bust, 9/11, and the Great Recession, I can confidently say that this time feels different.

Dealing with the “brutal facts” of our current reality is mentally draining—cases are on the rise, businesses are being forced to make tough decisions, and it often seems like there’s no end in sight. If you watch the news lately, everything seems to be doom and gloom.

The reality is that we are going to get through this. The other half of the Stockdale Paradox tells us that we can never afford to lose faith. While the virus is here to stay and will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, we need to remain steadfast in our faith that we can not only survive this thing but thrive on the other side.

One way to combat our grim day-to-day reality is to focus on what we can control and look at some positives that are coming out of this. Over the past 12 weeks, I’ve tried to remind others that, while there are a lot of negatives to all of this, there are positives as well. My friends and colleagues in the CEO Forums have all had a rough time (haven’t we all?), but they’ve also learned some crucial positive lessons they’re going to carry with them moving forward. The lesson of the Stockdale Paradox is that when we confront the brutal realities facing us today, we push ourselves even closer to that promise of prevailing in the end.

On the bright side
I’m a positive guy. Lately, when I talk to someone, I like to ask them about one positive thing they’re taking out of all of this. Whether it’s members of our CEO Forums, guests of my LinkedIn Live interviews, or clients, peers, and friends in the entrepreneurial community, everyone has something positive they’ve seen or expect to see. A few to note:

Reengaging with loved ones.
In some ways, it feels like many of us have simplified our lives by taking this opportunity to re-engage with family and friends, near and far. Okay, maybe sometimes it feels like we’ve gotten a little too reacquainted with those in our immediate household. But, speaking for myself, it has been great to welcome our college son back from university for some quality time, and I’ve engaged this summer with my other two sons without having the constant push and pull of competitive youth sports dragging us all over the state and region. While we shouldn’t have needed a global pandemic to focus more on our families, I know I’m not the only one who’s had a dramatic shift of work-life balance and priorities.

Having the chance to refocus priorities.
In the same vein, as we’re spending more time with our families, I’ve heard countless tales of leaders who have re-examined their lives and are shifting how they desire to focus their time. Some are prioritizing family time, but they’re also dedicating themselves to developing better habits. Whether it’s sleeping more, getting more exercise, or learning the guitar, it seems that many of us are taking this opportunity to take care of ourselves in both the short and long term. As my friend Kit Rich told me, “Taking care of yourself now IS taking care of yourself long-term.”

These refocused priorities aren’t just on a personal level. Some leaders are shuttering underperforming business units or products and focusing on more impactful ones. Others are relinquishing some of the perceived control they had over their business or choosing to focus more on their customers’ needs, versus the products and services the business provides. Many of my friends are rededicating themselves to servant leadership—asking, “How can I serve you?” to their teams, customers, and communities.

Coming together as teams.
It’s been fun to watch my friends and clients (and HireBetter!) come together as teams. For example, many of your teams moved mountains to go remote. After nearly four months, a lot of teams are working better and more cohesively—remotely—than they did before! Weekly “all hands” Zoom calls are the new norm, and it’s increasing camaraderie and communication between different departments and different business units.

One question that’s come up a lot is, “Just how virtual will we be on the other side of this?” Some teams are asking for or even demanding a more virtual work environment. Some CEOs I’ve talked to have already opted out of their leases or are planning to scale back their office space long term. A word of caution here: Be careful with the idea of going completely virtual. Many members of your team desire peer interaction and collaboration or simply work better in an office than at home. I know I fit that description!

Current reality
A month or so ago, there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We have since learned that light was actually a freight train coming at us from the opposite direction. But with all the positives I’m seeing, I can’t use the “train wreck” metaphor. With all the ups and the many, many downs, I think the track we’re actually on is more like that of a rollercoaster. There have been loops, adrenaline rushes, and upset stomachs—and there will plenty more in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

The reality we’re facing now is one of constant uncertainty. We’ve already learned to expect the unexpected. As leaders are faced with the day-to-day struggle of their companies’ survival, we can’t afford to lose the hope that we will ultimately get through this. We will prevail. In fact, there’s a lot that suggests we will ultimately come out of this stronger than before—as individuals, as companies, as communities, and as a society.

Balancing that optimism with our current reality—that things around us are a shit show and people are confused, scared, and hurting—is tough. But it’s what we must do. There will be times you will want to throw in the towel. But if you make it a point to find the positive lessons in all of this, and you work your tail off, I am confident that you will come out of this stronger than before.

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