Always Leading

March 19, 2020

President Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 "A day that will live in infamy." On that day 2,300 Americans lost their lives because of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The men, women and children of that day have been called The Greatest Generation. Their lives and leaders were shaped by The Great Depression and World War II.

 

Today the United States is dealing with another surprise attack but this time it's by an invisible enemy. Like our grandparents 79 years ago, we'll need everyone's best effort to win this fight.

 

The Greatest Generation was not perfect, like all of us, they made mistakes; but they came together as a country, made significant sacrifices and did what needed to be done.

 

One of the heroes of that generation was a remarkable leader named Vice Admiral James Stockdale. He was born in 1922 and was a fighter pilot in the Navy from 1947-1979. During the Vietnam battle, he was shot down and became a prisoner of war for eight years (1965-1973) and spent four of those years in solitary confinement.

 

Stockdale had no idea when the war would end and no certainty he would even see his family again, but he took personal responsibility for increasing the number of prisoners who would "survive unbroken."

 

When the war was over, he returned to the United States and began sharing his thoughts on how to lead in turbulent times. His philosophy became known as The Stockdale Paradox because he stressed the importance of having faith and not being overly optimistic.

 

When asked, "How did you endure 96 months as a POW?", he 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. However, 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."

 

Stockdale and those who followed his example had remarkable faith and they knew they were going to have to endure extreme torture for a long time. He observed the prisoners who thought the war would end quickly and they would be rescued soon, didn't make it out alive.

 

"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."

 

I encourage you to take five more minutes to read the story that was read at James Stockdale's wake called, "Always Leading." You may want to share it with your family and friends.

 

At a time when many people are afraid and their fears are stronger than their faith, we need more leaders like Stockdale in our workplaces, families and communities. Leaders who are willing to put other people first and by their example, inspire others to embrace the spirit of self-sacrifice and demonstrate an unwavering faith that we will win this war.

 

Seventy-nine years from today, our great-grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of our family and friends will be telling stories about the leaders of 2020.

 

What stories do you think they will be telling about our generation? What stories will they be telling about you?

 

Always Leading

by Orson Swindle (USMC, Ret) POW

 

The Country, the Navy, the Stockdale family, especially his beloved wife, Sybil, and those of us who were POWs in North Vietnam suffered a terrible loss with the passing on 5 July (2005) of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale. Husband, father, patriot, mentor, author, and dear friend, he touched our lives profoundly. Distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy, Medal of Honor recipient, courageous warrior, brilliant leader, almost bigger than life, he never stopped inspiring us. It is difficult to accept that he is gone. We recognize how fortunate we are that he came our way.

 

The POW experience was a real-time laboratory on leadership. Led by Admiral Stockdale's example, we prisoners lived and struggled to return with honor. He inspired each of us to lead in the most bizarre and painful of circumstances where to accept the mantle of leader meant certain suffering. But accept it we did.

 

I first encountered Jim Stockdale many years ago, and he changed my life.

 

Late Spring 1967 was a bad time for POWs in Hanoi. I was in my sixth month of imprisonment, living alone in a small windowless cell. I was not feeling good about myself, having broken under torture and written a propaganda statement. These were trying times, testing our spirit, our will, and our physical and mental stamina.

 

Our cell block, occupied by about 18 junior officers, consisted of ten cells. We communicated with each other by tapping on walls or lying on the filthy floor, peeking under the door to be sure the guards had left the area and then whispering along the passageway. Communicating was forbidden. The price for getting caught was solitary or torture.

 

But communicating was our lifeblood; we never stopped. For me, with my morale sinking, whispering and tapping with other POWs was enabling me to hang on. Late one evening I heard the muffled sounds of guards moving a new prisoner into a cell block about three cells down from me. The next day, when the guards vacated the block, I was down on the floor whispering to the "new guy," asking him to identify himself and join in the communications stream. Commander James Bond Stockdale checked in.

 

I was overwhelmed by his presence. Here next to me was our leader, a prisoner since 1965 and the senior Navy captive, and I was in direct contact with him. We were faintly aware of his most recent ordeal. Our admiration for him is difficult to describe. In the days that followed, Jim was not communicating much, as he was recovering both physically and mentally from pain recently inflicted. Sadly, there was to be much more suffering for him.

 

One day we young officers were discussing some issue and finding no answers. I whispered down the passageway, "Hang on for a minute, and let me ask the Old Man what we should do. Commander Stockdale responded with a wise answer to our problem.

 

Now fast forward to February 1973, almost six years later. We have been told we are going home. In the large courtyard area of Ho Loa prison (the Hanoi Hilton), the North Vietnamese are allowing one large cell of Americans at a time to wander over to the recently uncovered windows of other cells that surrounded the courtyard, permitting conversation. I see a slight man, terribly worn and tired looking with very grey hair limping over to my window. He looks up at me, smiles and says, "Hi, I'm Jim Stockdale, who are you?" We literally had never seen each other before. I reply, "Sir, I am Orson Sindle, Marine, and I want to thank you for your leadership and the inspiration you have provided to me, to all of us. Your leadership and personal conduct helped me survive these past six years. You very likely saved my life."

 

I continue, "I remember a day back in the Spring of 1967, when you moved into my area of the cell block. My morale and self-esteem were pretty low then. I was really down on myself. I recall how having you around and knowing what you had endured reminded me of my duty, my obligations, and what was expected of me. You inspired me by your mere presence. I am eternally indebted to you."

 

Jim smiles and says, "Orson, I remember you and those difficult days so well. I was really depressed and down on myself, too. I want you to know that when you whispered, 'Hang on for a minute, and let me ask the Old Man what we should do,' you reminded me of who I was and of my duty to each of you. Orson, you helped me survive, too."

 

This is our moment. This is our time. Let's inspire future generations with our heroic leadership stories.

 

Take some positive action every day to reduce the panic and help the people around you survive this war unbroken.

 

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