How to Be Optimistic and Realistic During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Balancing realism and optimism can help us navigate crisis.

Authored by

NLI Staff
We all need to strike the right adaptive mindset amid this crisis. The Stockdale paradox can teach us how to balance realism with optimism.

To lead our teams to success, we all need to strike the right adaptive mindset and not over- or under-react. We need to find a way to balance realism with optimism.

This paradoxical concept was popularized by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. Collins found the perfect example in the story of James Stockdale, the United States Navy Vice Admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years and survived when so many others did not.

Stockdale explained his major insight as the following: “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.”

James Stockdale formal portrait
Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James B. Stockdale in full dress white uniform.

This is indeed a paradox. Although we’re not prisoners of war, we do relate to Admiral Stockdale in not knowing how long we’ll be wrestling with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. If a leader ignores the challenges, the leader will appear naïve and out of touch. If the leader mires in the challenges, they risk creating a culture of pessimism that will demoralize and demotivate the team, and undermine its effectiveness.

To promote Stockdale’s prevailing mindset at work, use these three strategies to maintain your and your team’s focus:

Take care of yourself

We need to find ways to keep our brains in the best possible shape every day. Make sure to not get too far away from your routine during this time of isolation. We all need to get proper sleep, exercise, and sustenance. Even try some meditation or yoga to create personal buffers—strategies to increase your sense of certainty and connection, thereby mitigating stress, and helping you to think more rationally and creatively.

Look after each other

We have to help others stay productive with the right practices. Give employees the time and flexibility to take care of personal needs, whether it’s accommodating childcare or illness. Provide mindfulness and mental health resources, and send positive social signals—actions you take to help other people feel less threatened in their day-to-day work.

Deliver what matters

We must learn to ruthlessly prioritize and move faster as a team. Create structure and cadence for how you communicate with employees. Rally people around short-term goals. And for those working at home, encourage your employees to turn off the computer when it’s time.

Keeping the Stockdale Paradox in mind and following these strategies can help you focus during any trying time. If things get particularly rough, just remember, we’re all going through this together.

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