Do You Have What It Takes?

Do You Have What It Takes?

How to embrace optimism AND realism for leadership resilience.

The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
– Knowing how to cope in spite of setbacks, or barriers, or limited resources.

If there was ever a time that leaders are asking themselves, “Do I have what it takes?” it’s now.  With a global pandemic and stock market collapse combining to create a perfect storm of business uncertainty, our leadership is truly being put to the test.

It is important to remember that we are not the first leaders to go through hard times, in fact, a great deal can be learned from leaders before us who have weathered storms of crisis with grace and skill.

I have been thinking a lot these days of Admiral Jim Stockdale who is featured in Jim Collins’ ground-breaking book, “Good to Great.”  Stockdale spent eight years in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War, enduring relentless phycological abuse and physical torture.  He ultimately survived and went on to become the first three-star officer in the history of the Navy.

When Jim Collins interviewed Admiral Stockdale, he asked him how he was able to survive such tough circumstances when so many of his fellow soldiers did not.  Stockdale said that it came down to two things:


#1 – OPTIMISM – “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said. “I never doubted 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.”


#2 – REALISM – “There were some people 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. 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.”


Finding healthy tension between optimism and realism is now known as, “The Stockdale Paradox,” and it is proven to be the key to leadership resilience.  As this graphic illustrates, there are positive results that can only come from embracing both optimism and realism; and, there are negative results that are inevitable if you overdo one side to the neglect of the other.Optimistic Realistic copy

How Resilient Are You?

Reflect on your thoughts and actions this past week.  Have you held onto hope and lived in a place of high optimism?  Have you confronted the brutal facts related to the current crisis and embraced a high level of reality?  Take a look at the graphic below and assess which of the four quadrants you are currently living in.

Optimistic Realistic 2

The World Needs Your Leadership

I think character is permanent, and issues are transient.
Jim Stockdale

There is wisdom in the cliché, “tough times don’t last, tough leaders do.” And right now, the world needs tough leaders more than ever.  We need visionary leaders that inspire those around them to have faith that our families, communities and businesses will overcome in the end, regardless of how tough things get.  We also need courageous leaders who can help their teams, friends and families confront the brutal facts of the current crisis, no matter how hard they are to face. We need leaders who embrace both optimism and realism to safely pave the way to a better and brighter future.


Next Steps:


  • What is something you can start, stop or continue doing to gain or maintain the positive results of optimism?
  • What is something you can start, stop or continue doing to gain or maintain the positive results of realism?


  • What are signs and indicators that optimism is being overdone to the neglect of realism?
  • What are signs and indicators that realism is being overdone to the neglect of optimism?



Tim Arnold is passionate about helping people understand the chronic issues that limit leadership and teamwork, so they can thrive.  He is the author of The Power of Healthy Tension and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can overcome chronic issues and conflicting values.


Tim Arnold

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