In my book, keynote speeches and leadership workshops, I introduce a metaphor of a “Fire” to describe personal and organizational setbacks we’ve all experienced. The metaphor originates from the fire of 1666 that leveled London. Pre 1666, London was a 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 eradicated. The leaders of London were determined and succeeded in rebuilding and making London a very modern city. We too, like London, can emerge from both personal and organizational “fires” better, stronger, faster.
And while I’m sure optimism played a big part in the leaders of London as they began to rebuild, I’m equally sure realistic expectations and a good dose of current reality played a part as well. The challenge is to never confuse 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.”
We all experience personal and organizational “fires,” disappointments and setbacks for which there is no reason, no one to blame. Some “Fires” last longer than others. Some fires (the death of a loved one) we never get over. It may be a job loss or a closing of a business. It could be a divorce, recovering from an addiction or a loss of an election. What separates those who come out of the “fires of life” from those who are forever burned is not the presence or absence of “fires,” but how we deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. Keep pursuing your dreams but with the discipline to confront the “fires” of life. We will prevail in the end!