Hope that is Real

JamesStockdalePOW 

Over twenty five years ago, I first encountered the writings of Admiral James Stockdale (second from left in above picture). They were writings about philosophy and life as a prisoner of war.

Stockdale was the highest ranking US officer imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. His story is one of strength and resilience in the face of torture. His attitude and behavior, during the eight years that he was in the Hanoi Hilton prison, provided the leadership that made it possible for other POWs to survive the ordeal.

Jim Collins did the world a favor by bringing Admiral Stockdale's story to a wider audience. In his book, Good To Great, Collins presents the leadership principle, The Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is two practices, that when joined together, provide a strength of character that is hard to match. Collins describes it as the capacity to,

"Retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND AT THE SAME TIME have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

This is a way that people can maintain a clear connection to reality, even in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.

Loss of Hope

Hope and optimism have always been part of the public face of leadership. Yet,  I know many people in positions of leadership who are filled with doubt, disillusionment and lacking in hope for the future.

One of the reasons is the effect that living in a world of images and hyperreality has upon us. I call it, The Spectacle of the Real. In this culture, our sense of self, our self-perception and awareness, is established by our outward appearance. This is more than whether we are young, handsome and pretty. It is seen in the products we buy, the causes we join, the celebrity figures we follow and the way we spend our off-time.

A friend recently recommended to me a book by a popular business consultant. He did so because he felt that the author and I where addressing leadership issues in the contemporary world in very similar ways. I will not name her or her book out of respect for her past work that I have found innovative and useful. This book is a personal cri de coeur. It crosses a boundary of expression that is not simply an author demonstrating her change of mind, but rather raises questions about the perspective that she has presented for the past two decades. She reveals her own loss of faith in the ability of people to change the world. Is this a way of grabbing her audience's attention, or is she really a person who has lost hope?

My reading of the book left me with the uneasy feeling that her loss of hope has led her, not to self-reflection, but to blaming the public for not recognizing the genius of her ideas.

Here's how she frames her loss of hope.

Many of us – certainly I’d describe myself in these terms – were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace ... This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me into contemplating what might be the next project, the next collaboration, the next big idea that could turn this world around. But I’m learning to resist the temptation.

This is not a book that contemplates what we might do next, what we’ve learned from all our efforts, where we might put our energy and experience in order to create positive change. I no longer believe that we can save the world.  Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy. ...

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective non-government organizations (NGOs) are exhausted and demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle.  They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviors of those with power.

Yet I have not set out to write a book that increases our despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. ...

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work?

Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lies in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear: the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is pre-meditated disappointment.”

The author, with respect to her, is a victim of The Spectacle of the Real. She considers herself one of the experts who has the answers for solving the world's problems. She is so confident about the work she and her colleagues have been engaged in, that she cannot imagine, how on earth the world has not embraced the relevancy of their message. Her loss of hope is essentially a loss of faith in herself. She is a victim of her own celebrity and the followers who tell leaders just how important they are.  There is more that I could say in critique about her book, but that is not, ultimately the point of this post.

The Stockdale Paradox

To stay connected to reality, and remain hopeful about the future, requires resilience and circumspection.  Hope must be held within the context of the way the world actually is. Not the way we'd wish it would be.  In other words, if we can embrace reality and maintain hope, then we are more than likely to find a way to achieve our life and work goals that we would otherwise abandon.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins describes his first encounter with Admiral Stockdale as they walked across the campus of Stanford University.

"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."

Collins, after few minutes of reflection asked,

"Who didn't make it out?"

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."

"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused, given what he's said a hundred meters earlier.

"The optimists. Oh, 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."

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, "This is a very important lesson. 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."

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists, "We're not getting out by Christmas, deal with it."

Reading Stockdale's account of his imprisonment, In Love and War: The story of a family's ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam years (co-written with his wife, Sybil, a national leader of POW wives, who brought public attention to the plight of POWs and their families), provides the backstory that illustrates the principles he described to Jim Collins.

I want to use the Stockdale story as a mirror to reveal that the unnamed author of lost hope is one of Stockdale's optimists. She lives with the resignation that " I no longer believe that we can save the world."   Her statement is not a judgment about the world, but, in truth, about herself. She believed, naively, in my estimation, that the power of her ideas, and her approach to leading are self-evidently the way the world must go. All we must do is follow her lead. Her disillusionment came in seeing that "Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped."

Sadly, and most importantly, she does not believe that she and her colleagues will prevail in the end. Instead, "that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently."

This is an odd denial of reality and loss of vision for how we can adapt to the realities of the world as it exists. On the one hand, she believes that the world cannot be saved. Yet on the other, she still believes that her work is essential. What is missing is reflection, circumspection, and positive self-criticism. She needs the capacity to look at her own reality, at the brutal facts of her situation, assess and recognize her own failings or limitations, and then to understand how to work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, to prevail in the end. Her problem is not her ideas for change, but a lack of grounding in reality.

The line between idealism and defeatism is thin.  What this unnamed author of lost hope needs is the inner strength of resilience to the face of obstacles that stand in the way of changing the world. Embedded within her philosophy is a deterministic perspective that sees the world as a system of emergent forces that are outside of our control. If she is correct, then her loss of hope makes sense, and we should join her. If, on the other hand, there is freedom to affect these impersonal forces, to foster change in the world that makes a difference, then her loss of hope is not grounded in reality, but in her own fear or loss of faith in herself. 

To embrace reality in this way requires a capacity for self-learning that is more than philosophical, but at the practical level of character development.

Hope in the Midst of Torture

NVA Rope Torture
North Vietnamese Rope Torture

In a speech that Stockdale gave following his return, he speaks about the US military's Code of Conduct that was the ground upon which POWs lived under torture.

"I am not aware that any POW was able, in the face of severe punishment and torture to adhere strictly to name, rank, and serial number, as the heroes always did in the old-fashioned war movies, but I saw a lot of Americans do better. I saw men scoff at the threats and return to torture ten and fifteen times. I saw men perform in ways no one would have ever thought to put in a movie, and because they did perform that way, we were able to establish communication, organization, a chain of command and an effective combat unit. ...

Unless you have been there, it is difficult to imagine the grievous insult to the spirit that comes from breaking under torture and saying something the torturer wants you to say. ... But I and many others were tortured in ropes ... The reason it was important to take torture ... was to establish the credibility of our defiance - for personal credibility ...

In short, what I am saying is that we communicated. Most of the time most of us knew what was happening to those Americans around us. POWs risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other, to maintain group integrity, to retain combat effectiveness.

We built a successful military organization and in doing so created a counterculture. It was a society of intense loyalty - loyalty of men one to another ..."

To live in this kind of life situation requires circumspection paired with an indomitable commitment to prevail over the brutal facts. This is not egotism plus stubbornness. Rather, it is self-awareness and resilience.

In his memoir, following a torture session where he surprised his torturers with an outburst of anger, Stockdale writes, 

"Anyway, I'd committed myself to another course now. Live and learn, live and learn. The rules of this ball game would change as we went along. But for now I was spinning the web, and I like it better on this side of the fence. Time would tell."

This is the attitude of prevailing.

Hope in Hard Times

Many people I know have experienced hard times. They have lost their businesses to economic collapse. They have lost children to suicide or drug and alcohol abuse. They have seen their marriages end, or lose their spouses to cancer or other diseases. These people have every reason to have lost hope in the future. It is out of these relationships that I developed my Transitions in Life & Work program.

What I've learned from these friends and colleagues, as well as from my own experience of change, is that hope is not blind. Hoping against hope is not hope. It is the loss of hope.

Hope is visionary. It is something we can see, something we can imagine that is worth holding to, worth sacrificing for to gain a greater good in the future. In the case of Admiral Stockdale, he could see making it through, and going home. What does the unnamed author of lost hope see? Hard work and commitment without hope of success.

Hope that is Real.

Hope - to believe in a better future - in the midst of an embrace of reality - confronting the brutal facts - requires us to live in the real world. Real as in the opposite of fake. Umberto Eco wrote in his Travels in Hyperreality,

"... the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake. ... the frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth."

A present without depth is a future without hope. It is the loss of the past as a living reality, the loss of reality as a context for understanding and, the loss of an embodied presence that gives a clear sense of who we are.  The hyperreal present is one without a past, a future or hope.

Admiral Stockdale's POW war experience is analogous to our present culture of simulation and hyperreality. His captors created a fake world of isolation built around the false charge of criminality. The entire context of the prison was intended to break down the body in order to reach the mind and heart. Reach the mind with doubt. Reach the heart with lost hope. 

It was a game of propaganda. The intended audience for the fruits of torture was the American public who would view this artificial hyperreality through the screens of televised news and their morning newspapers. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to create a hyperreality where the POWs looked like they were healthy and well-cared for, and had come to see the rightness of the North Vietnamese Communist cause. In effect, the war on the minds of the POWs was also a war on the minds and hearts of Americans in their homes across the country.

The Spectacle of the Real is a similar form of propaganda. It's methods are not physical torture. Its aim is the same. Isolate the individual into a present that has no past, nor future. This is a culture of alienation and lost hope. The Spectacle of the Real is an emotional vacuum that creates a longing for the real that can only be met through the emotional attachment to consumer products, celebrity entertainers, politicians and, the 24/7 broadcast of opinions and adviced by authorized experts.  The is not an artificial reality, but a fake one, an unreal one that seeks to end individual thought and initiative.

One could describe this system of the spectacular in the words of the unnamed author of lost hope,

"Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy."

Admiral Stockdale challenged a similar system in the Hanoi Hilton prison by creating a communication system that connected the POWs together. It was essential to their survival and their ability to resist the propaganda efforts of the North Vietnamese.

At one point during the POWs' resistance to be used for propaganda, Stockdale issued a general order not to volunteer for a bomb-debris cleanup in Hanoi. He writes in his memoir,

"... it was a trap - that for every prisoner, every shovel, there would be two cameramen snapping propaganda shots continually, and there we would be in the world press: 'American prisoners of war go to the aid of North Vietnamese patriots as Yank bombs rain on the city of Hanoi.' ... we made up another general order ... 'No repent; no repay; do not work in town.'"

The result of this defiance was that Stockdale was handcuffed in manacles, both feet and arms, and place outside in a open courtyard exposed to the South East Asian sun.  After three days, they came to take him to interrogation.  He writes,

"I sensed I was going over toward Heartbreak (an isolated section of the prison), and my anxiety was high enough, with the cuffs still at full ratchet, that I called out my name: 'Stockdale, heading for Heartbreak!' In the midst of the noon-hour quiet, I knew some prisoner would pick it up. Position reports become an obsession when you realize how close you are to permanent isolation or even death."

Hope that is real amounts to a belief in one's capacity for adaptation and resilience. In our culture of hyperreality, the loss of hope is the loss of belief that one can prevail. This loss at the inner core of lives requires us to create change in ourselves that builds character for face to face confrontation with reality.

Ultimately, what I've learned, and Admiral Stockdale's story confirms it, is that prevailing in the face of the brutal facts cannot be done alone. We need others in our lives who believe in us so that we may believe in ourselves.

The reason I did not name the unnamed author of loss hope so as not to isolate her any more emotionally than she already is. For to lose hope is to accept emotional isolation. 

Finally, how do we have hope that is real. Three suggestions.

Follow The Stockdale Paradox. Be absolutely convinced that you will prevail in the end, and at the same time, face up to and deal with the brutal facts of reality. The more you practice them, the greater confidence you have to stand on your own and be less subject to the hyperreality of modern day consumer and political propaganda.

Establish relationships where Admiral Stockdale's two principles live. We need people in our lives who believe in us. We need to believe in ourselves, but also in others as well. Where those relationships are strong, we can face the brutal facts of our world, with resilience and hope. These relationships require honesty, transperancy, integrity and mutual caring.

Learn to see how hyperreality is a fake reality. The whole point of this series of essays on Reclaiming the Real is to recover a belief that we can make a difference that matters.  It is so people like the unnamed author of lost hope, the men who shared prison life with Admiral Stockdale, and the people you and I live and work with everyday, may not lose hope, and find ways to live lives of meaning and impact.

May it be so for us all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


A Century of Difference

Amazing how much has changed in such a short period of time.

However, I do believe that the principles which people shared, and the way the Circle of Impact can be applied has not changed.

The reality is that our needs for clarity of thought, being present in our relationships, and, genuine leadership are more needed now that ever.

Target

 

The other day I asked the following question as my Facebook status update.

Just thinking about how different the 21st century is compared to either the 20th or 19th. Working on a post about this. What would you all say is the difference? I'm curious.

It is an important question if we are to effectively lead into the future. Here are some of the ideas shared. (Thanks Jenni, Pat, Richard & F.C.)

The social aspect... communication in a heartbeat

The entirety of the gross data and factual information within the world is within your 1.5lb. laptop.

Less face to face social interaction. Less informal group social interaction. More social interaction at a wire's length.

Too many businesses have forgotten ... being the people business.

19th more face to face ... 20th letters and telegrams ... 21st email, mobile phones and social networks - instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed.

In summary, these friends are seeing changes in technology, relationships and communication. I agree. These are the core differences that are impacting us daily.

If we use my Circle of Impact framework, we can identify others. This is a valuable exercise because it helps us in two ways. First, in seeing the transition over the past two hundred years, and second, to give us an idea of where to put our energy and resources for the future.

Circle of Impact

Using the Circle of Impact to Identify Change

Ideas: The Importance of Clarity.

Today, ideas matter more than ever. In the past, the communities and places of work were fairly homogeneous, not as culturally diverse as today. Now we need to be very clear about our values and purpose, and be able to effectively communicate them in visual and tangible ways.

In the past, we could measure our business by the bottom-line, and have a pretty good idea about whether we were succeeding. Today, if we are not clear about the impact we are creating, the purpose of our businesses / organizations seem vague. Impact is the difference that matters, and distinguishes us from others in the same industry. The core meaning of impact is the change we are seeking to create, and how we know when we have.

Lastly, is having a vision that is clear about what each person brings to the mission of the organization, and by that I mean, understanding what is their potential contribution. Then knowing how it is aligned with the operating structure to produce impact. And thirdly, each member of the organization being able to articulate that vision from their own place within the organization. Same vision, different expressions of it.

Relationships: The Importance of Being Present

Today, the person who is prejudiced, condescending and exclusive toward people and other cultures is viewed as backward, narrow and insecure. Openness and welcome are important behaviors that leaders and their organizations need to exhibit.

This mindset, so to speak, is really just an entry level attitude toward relationships. At the core, what made for a healthy relationship two hundred years ago, does so today. A year ago in a post, Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomancy, I wrote,

Diplomacy is the practice of respect applied in places of diverse cultures. It is the ability of one person to be able to empathize with another person, even though their cultural, ethnic and philosophical backgrounds are not similar. ...

This type of respect is a form of humility that places the dignity of the other person ahead of one's own perogatives. It is what I see missing in much of the social and civic interaction that takes place in our society.

This aspect of relationships has always been true. The difference today is that it has to be treated as one of the strategic initiatives of the business. How the business relates to the person and the culture will have a huge impact upon how well they do.

In addition, the importance of respect, honor, dignity, and trust are now functioning within a social environment where technology mediates our relationships more and more. This is one of the most significant changes of the past two hundred years. And as one of my Facebook friends noted,

... instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed ...

This means that the quality of our relationships is really a matter of the person we are. Our character, integrity and values matter more than ever. They do because with many people we only have a moment to convey the depth of who we are. If we come across as shallow, narcissistic, unempathetic, or distracted, then we may never have a chance to change that impression. 

The impact of all this change in relationships and social context is that we must constantly be present with our best selves, if we hope to build relationships for the long term. To be present means that our first inclination is not to tell our story, but to ask questions to identify their story. When we know who they are and what they value, then, with genuine integrity, we can tell our story. We are able to do this when we truly approach each person with dignity, respect and trust.

Structures: The Importance of Leadership

A major change over the past two hundred years is in how businesses organize themselves. In the past, the industrial model depended upon a standardized, formal structure. Today, the complexity of doing business has placed a greater burden on workers to be problem solvers and initiative takers. The expectation that workers take greater responsibility is changing what it means to be an employee. In effect, this shift is a change in what is leadership.

In the past, leadership was a position, a title which often was personalized into a heroic narrative of the senior executive. Today leadership has become the impact that each person has within the business structure. It depends upon their ability to communicate, problem solve, relate well to others and contribute in ways beyond their job description. In effect, the skills of leadership are now the skills of an entrepreneur, and are needed by everyone within the structure.

With this shift, a company where more and more employees have the capacity to take initiative to lead, the quicker the company will adapt to changing situations with customers and in their industry.

The Difference that Matters

Here are five actions we can take.

1. Be clear about the Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose/Mission, Vision and Impact. Develop an elevator speech for each, so that when the moment arises you have something clear to say.

2. Develop Ideas in Conversation. Identify three to five people with whom you work, and often have lunch, and begin to share your ideas with them. You may want to share this post with them, and see where the conversation goes. The idea is to learn through collaborative reflection.

3. Volunteer with an Organization that Serves People in Need. I have found that working with people who have lived through or are living in hard times gives me perspective on myself. I learn to appreciate what I have and gain the ability to respect those whom I may have not been able to see any value. The resiliency and adaptability of people who are in need provides us a window into our own capacity to change. 

4. Develop a Set of Questions to Ask Everyone You Meet.  What sparks your curiosity? This is how the Circle of Impact was developed. I asked questions of everyone I met. Once the Circle became clear, I began to use this as a framework for my discussions with people. Now it is printed on my business card. Do this is to take initiative because your desire is to make a difference.

5. Go Slowly on Beginning to Take Initiative. Yes, leadership is an initiative taking function. But not all organizations have embraced this idea. In fact, many think that relinquishing control over employee freedom to lead ends with chaos and confusion. It certainly can if there is poor communication and coordination between members of a team or department. Understand, therefore, that leadership in this perspective needs alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure.

The last thing to say is that while the changes over the past two centuries have been great, the core attitudes and behaviors that make for effective leadership remain the same as always. The primary difference are the changes in the social and organizational contexts that have come through technological innovation and the growth of life and work on a global scale.


The Recession is a Game Changer

Do you need proof that the world has changed with this recession?

Check out Tom Peter's list, Recession46: Forty-six “Secrets” and “Clever Strategies” For Dealing with the Recession of 2008-XXXX.

He starts by stating the obvious.

You come to work earlier.
You leave work later.
You work harder.
You may well work for less; and, if so, you adapt to the untoward circumstances with a smile—even if it kills you inside.
You volunteer to do more.
You dig deep, deeper, deepest—and always bring a good attitude to work.
You fake it if your good attitude flags.
You literally practice your “game face” in the mirror in the morning, and in the loo mid-morning.
You give new meaning to the idea and intensive practice of “visible management.”
You take better than usual care of yourself and encourage others to do the same— physical well-being significantly impacts mental well-being and response to stress.
You shrug off shit that flows downhill in your direction—buy a shovel or a “pre-worn” raincoat on eBay.
You try to forget about “the good old days”—nostalgia is self-destructive
(And bores others.)
You buck yourself up with the thought that “this too shall pass”—but then remind yourself that it might not pass any time soon, and so you re-dedicate yourself to making the absolute best of what you have now.
You work the phones and then work the phones some more—and stay in touch with and on the mind of positively everyone.
You frequently invent breaks from routine, including “weird” ones — “changeups” prevent wallowing and bring a fresh perspective.
You eschew all forms of personal excess.
You simplify.
You sweat the details as never before.
You sweat the details as never before.
You sweat the details as never before.
You raise to the sky and maintain at all costs the Standards of Excellence by which you unfailingly and unflinchingly evaluate your own performance.

In effect, you need two plans going forward. You need a new business plan. And you need a personal development plan.

Even as government becomes an increasingly intrusive part of our lives, we are more independent than ever before. The social support structure of family and community are not what they once were. Which means that if you do not have an attitude and the behaviors to be resilient and adaptive, then you are going to have a hard time coping with the changes that are taking place.

Read Tom Peters whole list. Copy it. Reflect on it. Factor it into your personal development plan.

HT: Dan Pink


The Real Secret to Success

WP_001200

Attitude has a lot to do with whether we succeed or not. Read Twitter posts on a regular basis, and one of the patterns you'll notice is unbridled optimism in a formula for success. Too often this optimism denies reality and leads us to a kind of self-deception that is destructive of the very success we desire.

Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich and We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism by John Derbyshire approached the topic of optimism from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Megan Cox Gurdon in her review in the Wall Street Journal quotes them.

"We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world," warns Ms. Ehrenreich. "Things are bad and getting worse, any fool can see that," warns Mr. Derbyshire.

Though naturally an optimistic person, I do find the modern phenomenon of positive thinking highly problematic. Sort of a "mind over matter" for modern people. It is often used as bulwark against the realities of life. For many of us, we are a pain-avoiding, death-denying culture that runs from conflict into the arms of an uncritical belief in positive. While it may appear that the opposite of being positive is being negative or pessimistic, I believe it is a more complicated. Megan Cox Gurdon continues.

Especially provoking to Ms. Ehrenreich is the pervasiveness of the notion that a woman can improve her chances of survival by maintaining a perky outlook. The scientific basis for this belief is thin at best, yet, as she writes, it's a powerful "ideological force" that goes well beyond medicine and "encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate."

Her curiosity (and disgust) aroused, Ms. Ehrenreich delves into the long history of positive thinking in America, which might be summarized thus: dour 18th-century Calvinism begat floaty 19th-century New Thought, which begat 20th-century New Ageism, Norman Vincent Peale and today's mega-church "prosperity gospel."

As Ms. Ehrenreich disapprovingly explains, positive thinking has saturated not just American religion but also corporate life and popular culture, and it is rapidly soaking into modern psychology. The problem for her is that people who are insistently reciting inspirational phrases won't hear the siren's wail in time to save themselves. Ms. Ehrenreich cranks her indignation up highest when aiming at the bankers, economists, bureaucrats and business honchos whose near-hallucinatory positive thinking, she believes, has pushed us all to the brink of economic collapse.

For me the dividing line is not between optimism and pessimism, but between entitlement and responsibility. 

I find in many people that optimism is a shell covering over a belief in one's own entitlement to health, wealth, happiness and a life free of hardship. It explains to me the century long shift from an Emersonian self-reliance to the point that we have become wards of a benign, beneficent state.

I don't believe optimism in itself is bad. Rather, the popular contemporary form that denies responsibility which is.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

My conversation guide the Five Questions That Every Leader Must Ask is built around a more realistic perspective of our life and work situations. The fourth question focuses optimistically on the opportunities that we have now. These opportunities require us to take action. There is no entitlement here. All there is an opportunity and a choice whether to pursue it or not.

The third question focuses on the problems that we personally have created. Intentionally, I am not looking at the challenges that our various contexts provide us. For example, we can see the recession as a problem that entitles us to feel sorry for ourselves and receive a government bailout. Instead, we need to look at what situations we have control over, and address them effectively.

The problematic issue of optimism that Ehrenreich and Derbyshire address is really a modern phenomenon. It was social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, 350 years ago, who wrote that "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is no longer a view widely supported by the average person. Prosperity, even in the midst of a global recession, is rapidly expanding throughout the world. In places where poverty and disease had been the normal experience of people for centuries, middle class wealth is beginning to emerge.

While I would not suggest we go back to the days of Hobbes, I would suggest that a more realistic approach to life accomplish precisely what the optimists and positivity-gurus promise. This realism is not quite the pessimism of Ehrenreich and Derbyshire. Instead, it is closer to the thinking of the ancient Stoics.

Greek slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus wrote,

"Difficulties show men what they are. In case of any difficulty remember that God has pitted you against a rough antagonist that you may be a conqueror, and this cannot be without toil."  Roman emperor,

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote,

"You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last."

When the hardships in life are faced with reason and determination, we gain a richer appreciation of success and happiness.

It is this perspective that guided Admiral James Stockdale (whom I've written about here) as the highest ranking officer imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. In his discussion with Jim Collins, when asked who didn't make it out, and his response was "the optimists". This was so because they believed that if they just were optimistic that it would counter reality. Optimism only serves us when we use it to generate a determined will and persistence to work through hardships to achieve success.

A positive outlook serves only when we embrace reality and commit ourselves to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way of success. This is not an entitlement mindset that comes from believing that we deserve success because of our positive attitude.

There is no replacement for hard work, realistic self-criticism, a passionate vision worked out with commitment and perseverance and a recognition that much of our success is a product of other people's contributions and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

To succeed in this way is to understand life and work on a much broader canvas that miniature one's that many of us see before us.


Quick Takes: That No Quit Attitude - Waddie Mitchell

During tough times, our attitude is often the key to whether we'll thrive or merely survive. Waddie Mitchell,Waddie Mitchell - That No Quit Attitude Waddie Mitchell - That No Quit Attitude  the world's foremost cowboy poet wrote a poem - That No Quit Attitude - for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics that has been a great encouragement to me. Here is my transcription of the recording.

THAT NO QUIT ATTITUDE  -Waddie Mitchell

While gathering cattle near the ruins of a long abandoned homestead in the shadows of the mountains, questions swarmed around my mind of the people who had claimed there, most forgotten now, and long dead still.

 I wonder what had prompted them to leave their worlds behind searching for a life uncertain, in a vast and rugged region up and leave their home and kin for opportunity to find.

Taking little more to start with than an idea, and a reason and a dream of their succeeding in a future yet defined.

Soon these queries led to more like …

Why it is that some folks always need to push their borders out beyond the furthest milestone on a never-ending quest to find new ways and trails to blaze and in the process stretch that realm of what is built and done and known?

From the little draw above me and my pard’s ride with his fine’ns, throwing his bunch with mine now shaded up and settled down.

I could see that he had gone through battle for his pony sporting lather but his smile claimed that he had made it in with everything he’d found.

The sweat and dust and brush streaks on that pair done heaps of speaking as he pulled up near, dismounted and loosen latigo a bit.

He said, “We jumped them in the rough, and would have lost them had we weakened  but I swear, this here caballo ain’t got one half ounce of quit.

And that no quit phrase speaks volumes on one’s character and makin’s to a cowboy drawing wages riding ranges of the West.

Them who have it you’ll find usually conquer most their undertakings for the best in them is drawn out when their spirits put to test

Then I spot my cow dogs bushed up staying well hid from the cattle knowin’ with a cue they’d give all to do anything need done.

I thought then how the most of us will opt to shun that battle never knowin’ fully what we could accomplish or become.

Still, I believe like dogs and horses we’re all born with resolution.

Like muscles and good habits it needs use and exercise, if left dormant, its in jeopardy of lost evolution for eventually it shrivels ups and atrophy and dies.

But when flexed, it blossoms heroes in a source of inspiration for we all recognize that virtue and a no quit attitude.

And it proves its attributes in competition and vocation that evokes appreciation and a show of gratitude.

And since mankind started walking, it has been swifter, higher, stronger, as if pushed by some deep need to keep their limits unconfined

Almost thriving, always striving for things bigger, better, longer in an unrelenting pursuit of perfection, redefined.

And in this world that is soft complacence there are still a few among the masses who will readily give all to see a job or dream fulfilled.

It’s a trait that’s void of prejudice toward races, sex or classes just demanding its possessor be of valor and strong will.

Then as we start our cattle homeward lettin’ the dogs bring up the rear, and we leave what’s left of once somebody’s hopes and dreams behind

I’m convinced that no quit attitude will always persevere. Now it's the essence and the promise and the crown of human kind.


Whatever you are facing in your business or life, having a No Quit Attitude is the only one that we'll get you home. I am referring to an old American virtue long sense fallen out of favor in the public's eye, and that is self-reliance. To be reliant upon one's self is like the two cowboys in Waddie Mitchell's poem. They live and work in a dangerous environment, and they find a way to make it through.

Self-reliance, as I've learned from guys who spend their days on the back of a horse, is not about being the hardening loner, unreachable, not needing other people. Rather, it is a person who accepts the responsibility of their life, and because of that capacity are able to help others as they seek to become so.

As  I've told my sons and daughter, the only failure in life is to quit. If you don't, if you keep trying, you eventually succeed. It may be different than you expected, but it won't be failure. There is a huge difference between mistakes and failure. We learn and improve by making mistakes. We quit when we fail.  And these times, there is no place for quitting, and every reason to learn how to live That No Quit Attitude.


How a Non-Profit and a For-Profit together find success

A year ago I began a project with a small non-profit health care provider in a remote rural county here in North Carolina. They had many problems that needed to be addressed. Over the course of four months a long range plan was adopted which included a restructuring of the board, a revitalization of their by-laws, and the development of a marketing plan that would grow their image and support in the region.

Before the plan could be fully implemented, it became obvious that they were running out of money, and that if nothing was done, they would be out of business by the end of the year. So, we went back to work to modify their long range plan to incorporate into it a partnership that could provide them additional revenue. 

After some research, three options emerged. The first a merger with a competitor from a neighboring county never got beyond an initial conversation. The second a possible acquisition by a local provider of different health care services than the non-profit's.  The third was to sell to a for-profit health care provider in the same business.

As we approached this decision, we had two basic criteria that we applied to our decision making process.  It was essential that whatever happened, it would be in the best interest of the people of their community. After all as a not-for-profit organization, their stakeholders were the people they served.  Our prior planning process had revealed a lack of confidence by the community in the organization. Our plan was to rebuild the foundation of trust and confidence by the community. The mission of this healthcare organization was one that potentially could touch every person and family in the county. So, the failure to be a financially sustainable organization was not just a business one, but also a failure to fulfill its mission to serve their fellow citizens.  It was, therefore, essential that any solution would lead to greater opportunities to serve the people of their county. No small task.

The second criteria for finding a partner was that they could bring financial resources to the agreement.  For their problems were not really a management or service/operations problem, but a financial resources one. To build the numbers of client/patients to financially sustainable levels would not happen over night.

The clock was ticking, time was running out, and urgency was the name of the game.  After initial discussions, the first two options were put aside because there were no prospects for financial resources coming from either.

So, conversations began with a for-profit health care provider from out-of-state that already had another business enterprise operating successfully in the community. The thought occurred to all of us, "How does a for-profit business partner with a non-profit organization?"  There are all sorts of legal issues that must be addressed. So, we pulled in a couple of lawyers to advise us on these factors.

Over the course of three months, discussions and meetings were held that led to a purchase by the for-profit of particular assets of the non-profit.  The arrangement that they created is a story of how through persistence, creativity and attention to one's mission, even in the most dire circumstances, solutions can be found.  Here's the result of our work.

The for-profit is purchasing the non-profit's Certificate of Need and License to operate in five contiguous counties in North Carolina. That is all they are purchasing. While they apply to the state for approval of the transfer of license, they will operate the non-profit organization under a management agreement. This agreement begins December 1.

The non-profit retains the rest of its assets, including outstanding accounts receivable, their building and furnishings, and remaining funds in reserve. The non-profit will begin a new life as a philanthropic organization with funds that it can use to raise awareness of their mission of service to their community, and for indigent patients in their community.  Along with a foundation entity owned by the for-profit, payment for services by those in the community who "fall between the cracks" of the health care system can be met.

The resulting agreement, announced yesterday to staff and community, is a win-win-win one.  It is a win for the non-profit who met the criteria for continuing their mission and for the financial resources to do it in their transfer of operations to the for-profit organization.  The for-profit organization wins because they have the opportunity to build up services that had not reached its capacity to benefit the community, and provides them a base for expanding services in areas not provided by the non-profit. It is a win for the community because the specific health care services provided by the non-profit will continue.

The response from former board members was positive and hopeful. From the staff, a sense of excitement about a stronger organization that will provide them greater job security, opportunities for better compensation and benefits that the non-profit could not afford to provide.  By the board, a sense of hope, optimism and relief.

What are the lessons to be learned from this story?
Just how important trust and confidence matter. I cannot speak to what would have happened if a merger or acquisition by one of the other two options had occurred. The circumstances were not right at the moment they were presented. So, we'll never know.

However, as the non-profit board and the leadership/ownership of the for-profit got to know one another, it became increasingly apparent that there was a growing level of compatibility between the two organizations.  This made the deal the best it could possibly be.

Two things can be said about the leadership of the for-profit. It was apparent that there was no narrow, only one way, our way deal to be made. Instead, I've rarely encountered the level of openness to options by leadership that has been in place as long as they have. My assessment is that they are absolutely clear that their mission is to serve people and to do so in a business-wise viable manner.

That openness to let the deal become what it needed to be built trust and confidence in them. This was not a for-profit predatory organization looking to take the assets of a failing organization and slip off into the night.  I've seen that before. No, their commitment to the mission of service to the people of this rural county was paramount and enabled the board to see that not only were they a group to be trusted with the mission, but also they could have confidence that this group would succeed in ways that the current organization had not able to achieve.

In my role as facilitator, intermediary and consultant, I came to understand the importance of two things - communication and resilient optimism.

In a negotiation between two businesses, rumors begin to surface. People talk, and often the talk is inaccurate. In this case, all the rumors were wrong and apocalyptic in tone. At the appropriate time, the board of the non-profit instructed me to tell the staff about what was taking place. We talked about a range of issues, like their continued employment, and one of them asked if they could tell others. Here's the nature of real communication. I said,"I believe it is not time for you to talk about this outside of this room. However, my assumption is that once this meeting is over, that the news will be all over town." They asked "Who will that come from?"  I said, "My assumption is that one of you will be the source of the news getting out."  And, I was correct. For this reason, it is important to be absolutely clear about what is told in these situations. It can't be a hype. It has to be a straight-forward depiction of what is happening, to the degree that it can be said.

Finally, when an organization sees their money running out, it produces many different emotions. Fear, panic, remorse, anger, guilt, and denial to name a few. What this project did was reinforce my experience that resourceful, resilient optimism is required to thrive in hard times. We have to believe that there is an answer and through persistence and hard work, we will find it. In my dealings with the board of the non-profit, I never allowed them entertain the option of closing down. I was confident that if they stayed open to new ideas and options, one would surface that would work. And it did, and will beyond anything they could have imagined a year ago when we started this project.

Yes, in a time of diminishing expectations for the future, great things can still happen. We just have to remain open to the opportunities that are emerging, and learn to embrace them with energy and commitment.

And the story doesn't end here. Next month, once the management contract begins, the non-profit board will begin to plan for its next life as a philantrophy still committed to providing services to their fellow community members. I look forward to the opportunities that will come for them.