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Stockdale's leadership style


As a fighter pilot in Vietnam, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale (1923-2005) was shot down in 1965 and he spent eight years as the ranking prisoner of war. For refusing to broadcast anti-American speeches, he was denied treatment for a broken knee and he spent four years in solitary confinement. At one point, under pressure to betray his fellow prisoners and his country, he inflicted near fatal wounds on himself rather than endanger others. He knew that with his visible wounds, the enemy could not display him on television. His efforts led to better conditions for prisoners and disrupted Hanoi's extortion policy. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Admiral Stockdale retired after 37 years in the Navy and, since his retirement, he has been a college professor, a college president, a senior research fellow at Stanford University, and a candidate for Vice President. Some years ago, he introduced a course at the Naval War College, entitled Foundations of Moral Obligation, which was designed for mid-career military officers and government executives. Admiral Stockdale felt that most leaders were mere "pedestrian functionaries" who had no problem with the routine business but could not handle the unexpected.

Leadership qualities

Admiral Stockdale says the most important foundation for any leadership course is history—that our problems should be held against the light and wisdom of the past. He feels that most leaders get by on a day-to-day basis by relying on intuition, but that the overflow of information confronting them gives them a false feeling that values will be issued by "the system" whenever a crisis arises. Martial arts instructors must know about martial arts' history if they are to be leaders. Knowing about past mistakes prevents making the same mistakes again.

Adm. Stockdale feels the next discipline to draw from is philosophy, but that the current trend of "relativism" causes problems. The belief that each value judgment is as good as the next is not valid. He feels as Socrates—that there is such a thing as a central objective truth and that what is "just" transcends self-interest. Martial arts leaders must have definitive promotion standards and strictly enforce them. By making exceptions to these standards, they weaken the value of promotions. From these beliefs and the course he developed, the Admiral formulated ten basic Principles of Leadership.

Principle 1. You are your brother’s keeper.

To be an effective leader, you must suppress your individual instinct for self-preservation for the common good of your students. Instructors should help students to help themselves by giving guidance and information, and only give direct aid as a last resort. Students must bear the responsibility for their actions and be held accountable for their actions. Fixing students' problems does not teach them how to prevent the problems from reoccurring.

Principle 2. Life is not fair.

There is no moral economy in which virtue is rewarded and evil is punished. If you want justice in life, you will have to find another world to live in. Sometimes a student, for whatever reason, is physically or mentally incapable performing to the standards of the next belt level not matter how hard they try. This is regrettable, but sometimes life is not fair.

Principle 3. Duty comes before defiance.

Defy the system only as an exception; only when you are positive it is evil. You must work within the system for change until it becomes evident that the system is corrupt. Martial arts leaders must work within their organization for changes they feel are necessary. Only as a last resort should they defy the organization.

Principle 4. Compulsion and free will may coexist.

Many questions should be asked of a person who says he or she was coerced into taking an action. To the instructor who says, "I pushed the student because he drove me to it," Aristotle would say "more information is required before the act is may be considered justified." The Admiral's POW history is evident in this principle. It becomes too easy for us to blame others or circumstances for our own shortcomings.

Principle 5. Every person can be more than he or she is.

Martial arts leaders limit students' potential by appealing to what they are, rather than what they might become. Persuasion is a primary responsibility of a leader. Martial arts instructors must seek and demand excellence in their students.

Principle 6. Standards and absolute equality are a trade-off.

If you subordinate your standards to equality, you have no standards. The ideology of relativism has convinced too many people that everyone is good, simply because they "are." This philosophy undermines the high standards of martial arts . Some things and some people are simply wrong. All students are not equal. Some have to train harder and longer to achieve the same belt level that others achieve with ease.

Principle 7. People don't like to be programmed.

A good leader appreciates contrariness and works through it. Instructors cannot force students to do what the instructors think is good for the students. Instructors cannot persuade students to act in their own self-interest all the time. As stated in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, "I will not be a piano key; I will not bow to the tyranny of reason." Students do what they want to do. They may say to the contrary, such as "I wish I had more time to train,” but in fact, if this is what they really wanted to do, they would do it. People always find time to do what they really want to do, and then they make excuses for not doing what they know they should do.

Principle 8. Living in harmonious "ant heaps" is contrary to man's nature.

Life only makes sense when the element of freedom is included in the mix. Many people feel they are expressing individuality when they do what everyone else in a certain group is doing, but sometimes, you can only be an individual when you do what no one else is doing. Instructors must work to develop teamwork within their dojangs, but they must also realize that each student is an individual person and some may resist working in a team.

Principle 9. The self-discipline of stoicism has everyday applications.

It may be hard for a young aggressive martial arts instructor to accept, but the Stoic's strong medicine is worth taking; as one such as Adm. Stockdale, who has been trapped in a web of adversity, suffering, and cruelty, can attest to. Sometimes emotions must take a backseat to reality. When things go wrong, sometimes, you just have to grin and bear it.

Principle 10. Moral responsibility cannot be escaped.

The person is a sum of his or her deeds. You cannot use your profession as a shield from responsibility for your actions. Martial arts leaders are responsible for their own actions and, as leaders, for the actions of those under them.

Admiral Stockdale uses these principles of leadership as a basis to describe some of the basic duties of leaders:
  • First, they are moralists. Martial arts leaders set an example of morality and teach their students to be morally sound. One weapon criminals use is the manipulation of a victim's shame of a past action. A clear conscience is a person's only protection.
  • Second, leaders must be jurists. Sometimes martial arts leaders must base their decisions solely on their ideas of fairness and their strength of character. Their judgments may be unpopular, but they must never be unfair. A leader never makes a rule that cannot be obeyed.
  • Third, leaders are teachers. This takes wisdom and discipline. It requires both the sensitivity to perceive philosophic disarray in your students and the knowledge of how to put things in order. In times of trouble, people cling to those they can trust. For many students, their martial arts instructor is the person they look to when they need help facing a problem. To develop new martial arts leaders, we must pass on our knowledge and experiences.
  • Fourth, leaders are stewards. It requires knowledge, character, and heart to boost the confidence of students and show them the way.
  • Lastly, leaders are philosophers. A martial arts leader must be able to explain to students the lack of moral economy in the universe. He or she must face fear with courage and failure with emotional stability. They must know a little about everything and be a little of everything.
Admiral Stockdale says that control of tragedy is the job of a leader. The final test of how well a leader performs is not how well he or she "hangs in there" when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected, but rather his or her persistence when there is not a possibility that the light will ever show up. The true mold of a leader is not how he or she performs routine operations, but how well he or she performs when everything has "gone to hell." A martial arts instructor never lets problems in his or her life interfere with the quality of his or her teaching. The following are some more of Admiral Stockdale's thoughts on leadership.

Thoughts on leadership

Life is not fair.

Admiral Stockdale states:
"The challenge of education is how to prepare young people to respond with grace when they don't succeed. They need to know that a failure is not the end of everything—they must learn how not to give up in the face of adversity."
"At the time I was shot down, I had the top job a Navy fighter pilot could hold. Suddenly I was isolated and crippled, with my captors trying to tear apart my system of values. I was able to overcome the 'Why me?’ feeling by recalling my studies of men who had successfully dealt with failure in our historical past. The biblical story of Job reminded me that life is not always fair. Even honest and upright men can be tested by evil and must be prepared to deal with it."
There is no justice in life; children die of cancer and drug dealers live to old age. To face this world of injustice, you must have knowledge of past injustices and how great men and women of history dealt with them. This comes from reading and continuing education.

Hatred is self-defeating.

Admiral Stockdale states:
"We can't prevent anger sometimes. It can be a healthy reaction to the twists and turns we face in life. But, if you allow it to develop into bitterness or hatred, anger becomes a destabilizing emotion. Harnessing it gives you power."
"I realized after being tortured beyond the point of human endurance, that I had to find a way to outsmart them. So I learned to harness my anger as a tool rather than as a weapon they could us against me. That started with resisting self-pity and by becoming fully engaged with my comrades—helping others and being encouraged by them."
If you get angry when something does not go your way, don't feel sorry for yourself, don't try to "get even", instead, say "I'll show them, I'll be a success despite them!" and then charge on even harder than before.

Don't worry about things you cannot control.

Admiral Stockdale states:
"We spend most of our lives dealing with situations we didn't cause. As a result, we burn a lot of nervous energy worrying about things ultimately not determined by us. There is, however, one important thing we have the choice to control—our attitude."
"In my case, locked up and hungry, never knowing when I would be called next for torture, the tension was unbearable. I realized that I couldn't allow myself to waste precious energy worrying about what would happen anyway. To prevail, I had to find a way to take charge. For instance, when interrogators pressured me to make propaganda exhibits, I would stand up and challenge them: "No way. Come here and fight." I knew they could slam me into ropes and steel bars, making me scream like a baby, but I knew they couldn't take me before cameras if I showed signs of torture."
If there is nothing you can do about something, then try to minimize your damages and keep going. If there is something you can do about it, then do it; don't sit around and complain.

Courage is endurance in the presence of fear.

Admiral Stockdale states:
 "We all—whether in school or business, the military or the neighborhood—face pressure in our lives when people try to manipulate us through fear or guilt. Guilt can mean feeling inadequate; feeling that we never measure up to expectations or that ‘I'm not good enough.’ Fear or failure can be a great motivator, but if those feelings get out of control, they can destroy you."
"In the prisons of Hanoi, at one time or another, all of us were forced to submit under brute force. Our captors went to great lengths, alternating force with suggestions of ‘be reasonable’ or ‘meet us halfway’ to get a man to compromise his honor, if only a little. Like drug-dealers, they knew that if a man begins to compromise, then gets depressed and full of guilt, he can be brought under their control."
Strong leaders don't let things keep them down. We all have things in life that cause us pain or depress us, but the strong don't let these things keep them down. They get back up, get back on track, and are better for it.


Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. And yet, as Stockdale said, he never lost faith during his ordeal:
“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.”
Then comes the paradox: While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prison mates who failed to make it out of there 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.”

What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much, and they couldn’t handle it.

Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in hell, but, rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners. He created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And he sent intelligence information hidden in the seemingly innocent letters he wrote to his wife.

  • Official Website for Admiral Stockdale. http://www.admiralstockdale.us/
  • Collins, J.  (2001). Good to Great.

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