Confront this brutal reality – and have faith in the story’s end

Andy Long on how long, difficult journeys – like the one we all share today – can build strength, power, and leadership.

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One of my favorite concepts from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great was the Stockdale Paradox. Adm. Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He was tortured over 20 times in his eight years of imprisonment.

When Collins was able to interview Stockdale, he asked him how he survived. Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted that not only would I 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.”

The concept Collins developed into the Stockdale Paradox was: We must confront the brutal realities of today while continuing to have faith that we will prevail in the end.

As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of cases of coronavirus and tens of thousands of deaths in the United States. Tens of millions of Americans have gone on unemployment in the last two weeks with many businesses struggling to stay open.

When I listen to the experts, they predict it is going to get worse before it gets better. There’s no consensus on how long this will last, how many deaths we’ll experience, and how deeply it will destroy our economy.

As rural leaders, what are we to do?

Confront the brutal facts. We’ve grown comfortable in this country, and that can be a bad thing. We elect politicians who tell us what feels good instead of what we need to hear. We look for ways to make things easier. This made us unprepared for this pandemic. We wanted to believe politicians and media sources who said it wouldn’t be that bad. We wanted to continue our normal life and not be interfered with. Before many of us realized how serious it was – including me – we made decisions that made it easier for more to get infected. This is a serious situation and we all need to take every precaution to mitigate the crisis.

Never lose faith in the end of the story. This too shall pass. At a certain point, whether it is a couple of months or a couple of years, we won’t need to worry about coronavirus on a daily basis. As we take caution every day, we need to strengthen our resolve that this will make us a stronger community in the future.

As one leader, that is a big task. But I challenge you to borrow two practices from The Leadership Challenge:

> First, model the way. Some of our schedules have changed; it’s a good opportunity to reflect back on our most important values.

The best leaders and the best organizations have strong values that are part of the core of you as an individual and an organization. In our day to day life, there are endless opportunities to be busy. Sometimes the busier we get, the less effective we are.

Go back to the most important things you believe and do as an individual and an organization. Your deepest held values as an individual will give you guidance on how you help your community the most right now and in the future.

> Second, inspire a shared vision. A leader’s job is to paint the picture of a better future for themselves and their teams. Today, it is important to focus on what is best to keep us healthy.

That being said, you should also spend some time thinking, What do your life and organization look like in five years? It probably will get worse before it gets better, but if we continue to get bogged down by what we can’t do as opposed to think about what is eventually possible, it’s tough to keep faith in the end of the story.

I’ve studied Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey over the last five years. Campbell examined stories for thousands of years across cultures around the world. He found a similar story of a hero’s journey through different cultures across history. In The Hero’s Journey, an ordinary person gets thrust into a unique situation and, by overcoming a series of increasing challenging difficulties, is eventually transformed into a hero.

We are and will continue to face a series of increasingly challenging difficulties through this pandemic. But we can believe we will prevail in the end and be transformed into something stronger. We can do that by honing our values and inspiring others to a vision of a strong future.

Andy Long is executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp. He also is the director of Cultivate Rural Leaders, a nonprofit organization providing rural communities and organizations with leadership education. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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