As Hurricane Isaac hit the Gulf Coast this week on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting failed levees, I reflect on a powerful lesson I learned about human character and organizational development in 2005 when I was placed as a staff member on loan to help Louisiana establish what is now called the Foundation for Louisiana. I worked for six weeks in the Louisiana capitol to set up basic building blocks for the foundation while staying in an RV with co-workers and the homes of generous Baton Rouge residents. At the same time, my sister, Jewel, a Metairie, La. resident, stayed at my home with my husband in Ohio after riding out Katrina at the New Orleans airport and getting one of the first flights out when air travel resumed. Among the many impressions and lessons, one particular mantra sticks out: Face the facts, but keep the faith.
In the classic Good to Great by Jim Collins, he refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp for eight brutal years. He was the first three-star Navy aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Stockdale said to Collins, “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.”
While the challenges of starting the organization were no match to the challenges many families had for rebuilding their lives, we too had to be reminded of the Stockdale Paradox. In trying to establish a philanthropy, we were faced not only with the challenges of immediate community needs from the Katrina disaster, but also with the frustrations of complex politics, an upheaval in community networks, and oh yes, another hurricane- Hurricane Rita. We had to keep steady focus on executing the tasks within our control and believe that our work was necessary for the community to overcome the devastation of the disasters. We could not just hope that everything would work out; we had to work it out. We had to confront the facts of nature, human errors, political miscues, and tenuous infrastructure.
Since the beginning of time, generations and generations of people, communities, and organizations have survived based on their ability to confront their reality, find practical ways of making the best of what is in their control, and maintaining hope for a better future. In your most challenging times as an organization, you need to:
- Face the Facts: Don’t discount the outcome data; don’t trivialize the survey results; don’t pass on the feedback like a hot potato that you never want to touch again. Analyze information with your staff and board members when appropriate. Tune your ear so that you know the truth when you hear it. Pay attention to the external factors affecting your work and adjust. If you are truly facing the facts, you will create a plan for dealing with your organizational reality. As you outline and purse this plan, expect bumps in the road. Have a strategy for dealing with more adversity if it comes.
- Keep the Faith: You must understand and believe in the value your organization is providing. Maintain confidence that this work will continue with successful outcomes because of the value it has in the community. Stoke the passion for the organization to not only survive but thrive in its efforts.
My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by Hurricane Isaac. May individuals, families, and the organizations that are working to meet their needs have the strength and resources to face the facts and keep the faith. May they prevail against life’s storms.