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Great Expectations

It has been a year for inspirational quotes! Social media quotes to boost morale, provide encouragement, and support wellbeing have been shared in a sort of collective virtual effort to help each other navigate through our individual Covid challenges.

For me, both personally and professionally, the go-to philosophy has been that described by James Stockdale in Courage Under Fire, and his essay on how he survived being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He cited his interest and application of Stoicism as one of the reasons for his survival and said: "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."

For me, this closely relates to how we deal with our individual and collective expectations: how they are set, whether they are met, and how we cope with the difference between expectation and our eventual reality. As well as my own challenges in this area in 2020, I have come across many coaching clients grappling with expectation and reality related issues both during the pandemic and the run up to leaving the EU.


Our personal relationship with expectations is a complex one. How do they become set and how do they influence our behaviour? What causes them to change over time? I guess we might ask Pip, the central character in Dickens’ Great Expectations, and he would advise that our expectations are related to our context, something that he most certainly experienced when he progressed from poverty to great wealth. Our expectations will also be informed by those around us, often translating into unconscious assumptions that limit our horizons or, as in Pip’s case, cause us to misjudge where those horizons are!

There are many who struggle with gaps between their expectation and reality. This has come up in many coaching conversations, particularly during the latter part of 2020. No surprise really as wellbeing has become more challenging for all of us in the face of Covid-19. At one time or another I suspect most of us have thought about their ability to cope with the changes enforced by the virus. I certainly have, and for the most part found it useful to do so. What is less productive is the linking of the ability to cope with a time limit. You know the sort of thing ‘I’ll be alright……..provided this is all over by the end of July’. Many of my coaching clients have subconsciously set a deadline in a conditional clause to their expectation that they would cope. When the deadline passes, and the need to carry on coping remains, there is a loss of resilience which is repeated as each time dependent expectation is not met.

In several coaching conversations I have found myself referencing James Stockdale’s quotation describing how he faced torture and confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. On most occasions I used the Jim Collins’ derivation of his original writing in Good to Great, which describes the leadership characteristics that support success in business. He coined the phrase ‘Stockdale Paradox’ which states that to be successful in the face of challenge it is necessary find the right balance between optimism and realism. From this paradox come workplace phrases like ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ which, for me, misses the point. There is greater relevance in Stockdale’s original words “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”. This means that having set an expectation we need to go about meeting it with all the resources at our disposal. We need to take care not to create a dependency on something over which we have no influence. We need to balance optimism with realism. This applies in our self-management, in our leadership roles, and it is also playing out on the national stage in the government’s management of the pandemic.


In response to Covid-19, our government has done its best in unprecedented circumstances. No doubt there have been mistakes but it is unlikely a blueprint for successful pandemic management exists. What we all hope for is that we are closer to that blueprint now than we were a year ago. Failing to learn from our collective experience will be unforgiveable. In the here and now the one thing that causes my blood pressure to rise is hearing an expectation being set when there is every reason to believe that it cannot be met. Take as an example the absurdity of saying in late October that the reason for a second national lockdown was to ensure that Christmas could be celebrated, almost as per normal. You can’t say you are having decision making ‘led by science’ one minute and then make a crystal ball related commitment the next. As we all now know along came a viral game changer, a collection of mutations leading to a new strain. Horrible though it is this is not hot news. It’s no surprise. Viruses mutate very quickly and can establish new differentially virulent strains pretty much at the drop of a hat. So, an expectation created by our political leaders was not met and with that I have little doubt that at a population level, trust has been eroded.


The Brexit deal narrative has played with expectations in a rather different way. In the last few months of this year the tone was that negotiations were going badly and that a no deal outcome was likely. As the deadline loomed the gloom deepened until ‘Hey Presto’ a deal was struck, captured in a 2000 page document. Victory is snatched from the jaws of certain defeat! I mean really, has there been any meaningful negotiation that has not gone right down to the wire? By managing expectations in this way are we less inclined to question the nature of the deal as we heave a sigh of relief that we have one? Isn’t it a bit like all of the major roadworks projects that concluded with signage saying, ‘Completed 3 months earlier than expected’. Seeing these signs once or twice did encourage a sense of shared delight in expectations not just being met, but exceeded. Seeing them time and again only led to the view that expectations were clearly not being set correctly in the first place and we the road users were being taken for fools!


As I am typing this I have been listening to the latest briefing on the Covid situation in England. It was not easy listening, yet I did note BJ held back from making any time dependent promises. Evidence of the learning referred to above perhaps? In 2021 I look forward to building on my own personal and professional learning throughout 2020. I suspect that I will need to remind myself of James Stockdale’s words from time to time, in pursuit of finding my own ideal balance of optimism and realism.