Admiral James Stockdale was held as a Prisoner of War for seven years. Today, he gives us an excellent lesson for Coronavirus Communication.

In 1965, Stockdale was flying a mission over North Vietnam when his plane was struck down. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and imprisoned in the terrible Hỏa Lò Prison. Routinely tortured and beaten, he eventually became a leader in prisoner resistance, creating a “code of conduct” for prisoners to ensure that he and his fellow POWs stayed physically and mentally strong. (The details of his imprisonment are gruesome; you can read them here.)

He survived. In fact, he thrived.

Years later, Admiral Stockdale was interviewed by business guru Jim Collins in his book GOOD TO GREAT. Stockdale said:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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.

There are two pieces to this wisdom:

  • REALISM (“This time sucks”)
  • OPTIMISM (“But it will become the defining event of our lives.”)

It seems contradictory, doesn’t it? This balance of realism and optimism became known as “The Stockdale Paradox.”

When Collins asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out of that hellscape, Stockdale said, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. 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.”

Whenever optimists meet pessimists, the pessimists will invariably say, “I’m not being pessimistic, I’m just being realistic.” But in the time of COVID-19, it’s not pessimistic to say “this is hard.” It’s hard for all of us, in very different ways. That’s reality.

But to simply say “This sucks” is not helpful. We know it sucks. Realism alone is not enough. It must be paired with optimism.

It’s “BOTH optimism AND realism.”  It’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.”

Let’s unpack why this is so important to our society, our economy, and our world right now — and how you can help.


“Back To Normal — Any Day Now!”

When leaders promise that we’ll be “back to normal,” or “reopening,” or “restarting” on a specific day — say, Easter, or May 4, or the “Fall Semester,” they are trying to build public confidence. But it has the opposite effect.

Let’s say the public really believes we’re going back by Easter, then Easter comes and goes. Then it’s May 4, and May 4 comes and goes. After a while, as in Stockdale’s prison, they “die of a broken heart.”

It’s equally dangerous to give false hope that things will somehow be “back to normal,” that we’ll resume life as it was. There is no going back to the way things were. We will be living in a #NewNormal until we get a vaccine discovered and produced at mass scale — and that timeline is likely months and years away.

That’s the bad news. But there’s always good news. The good news is:

  • We have the opportunity to rethink the way we work together, and the way we help each other.
  • We have the opportunity to reboot our businesses, our organizations, and our world.
  • We have the opportunity to learn new skills, and experiment with new ways of doing things.
  • We have the opportunity to reconnect with family, friends, and those who need help.
  • We have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves for a post-CoronaCrisis world.

Stockdale said that he never lost faith that not only would the story have a happy ending, but that it would become the defining event of his life.

More than that, he would eventually see the event as one that he would not trade.


Applying the Stockdale Paradox

In a nutshell: when communicating about the CoronaCrisis, balance REALISM with OPTIMISM.

REALISM means:

  • Expressing empathy: this time is difficult on all of us, in different ways.
  • Putting fears into words: talk about common anxieties that we’re all going through (food, family, job, income, health).
  • Acknowledging uncertainty: we don’t know exactly how this will play out, or when it will end.


  • Highlighting strengths: Bringing out stories of hope, resilience, and other great human qualities.
  • Keeping the faith: Never losing sight of the #GreatRecovery, the Planetary Party that awaits us on the other side.
  • The Defining Event: Communicating our response during this time as the “defining event” of our generation.

If you want to help your fellow humans, just say these words.

When we get through this time — however long it takes — we will look back on it and say, “We would not trade that time, because it made us who we are.”


5 Business Best Practices During the Coronacrisis:

> Communicate “The Stockdale Paradox”: balancing realism with optimism.

> Like Stockdale, create your own “Code of Conduct,” and communicate it to others.

> Whenever you complain (“This sucks”), pair it with hope (“but we will make it through, and be stronger”).

> Read this great article on The Stockdale Paradox. (It puts things in perspective.)

> Spend 10% of your time helping others.