Prevailing In the End

 Posted by on August 7, 2012
Aug 072012
 

Prevailing In the End

 

In my book, keynote speech and leadership workshops, all under the title “Building Cathedrals: The Power of Purpose,” I introduce a powerful metaphor of a “Fire” to describe personal and organizational setbacks we’ve all experienced. The metaphor originates from the great fire of 1666 that leveled London. Pre 1666, London was a very medieval town. 10,000 people annually dying of the plague. The major cause of the plague was diseased carrying rats and fleas. After the fire, the rats and fleas were gone. The leaders of London were determined and succeeded in rebuilding and making London a great city. We too, like London, can come out of our personal “fires” great.

I’m sure optimism played a big part in the leaders of London as they began to rebuild. Optimism has played a significant role in my transition from 20 plus years in corporate America to now an independent business owner, realizing that while I would experience months without making any money whatsoever, I would eventually be successful.  In fact my co-author, Skip Wirth, lists seven characteristics of those who come out of “fires,” with number seven being “optimism.”  And while I still believe more than ever the power of being optimistic, I also realize the challenge of never confusing faith that we will prevail in the end—which we cannot afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality (our “fires”), whatever they might be.

This lesson is best explained in an interview with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war with without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date and no certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command; doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors.

During an interview, Admiral Stockdale was asked what helped him and the other survivors endure the torture and isolation. He described elaborate communications systems, strategies to reduce the sense of isolation and even coping mechanisms while being tortured. Reluctantly, the interviewer finally asked the question, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” He continued, “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they would 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.”  Stockdale then turned to the interviewer and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you cannot afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Some “Fires” last longer than others. Life is not always fair. We will all experience our personal “fires,” disappointments and setbacks for which there is no reason, no one to blame. It may be a death or it may be a job loss. It could be a divorce or recovering from alcoholism or drug abuse. What separates those who come out of the “fires of life” from those who are fatally burned is not the presence or absence of “fires,” but how we deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. Keep building your “Cathedrals” with optimism and the discipline to confront your “fires” and you will prevail in the end!

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