In 1979, after 37 years of service, Vice Admiral James Stockdale retired from the Navy. He served in Vietnam for 10 years, seven of which were as a prisoner of war(POW). Upon return from a 1965 bombing campaign, he was shot down, captured, beaten and interrogated before being sent to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp. For the next seven years, he and his fellow prisoners endured brutal conditions as POWs. The stories of Vice Admiral Stockdale’s senior leadership at the camp included creative defiance of his enemy captors amid numerous bouts of torture. A man of unwavering faith, he continued to lead his men throughout captivity until their release in 1973. In 1978, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and retired soon thereafter. In 1992, Vice Admiral Stockdale found himself as the vice presidential running mate of independent presidential hopeful Ross Perot.
On the October 13th vice presidential debate, Vice Admiral Stockdale started his opening remarks with the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here?” The question was meant to identify that Vice Admiral Stockdale was not a professional politician, but rather a leader of men through his experience in the Navy and most notably as a POW. He had unique experiences that set him apart from the other two candidates. Unfortunately, his lack of professional debate experience in the political arena was apparent and his efforts in the debate became painful to watch.
That all said, his opening question is important for all leaders to be able to answer and it requires deep thought to do so. However, we live in a fast-paced, plugged-in world where multi-tasking is the norm as we “marinate in a stream of our social media.” In 2010, a study by Stanford researchers sought to answer the question: How are today's students able to multi-task so effectively? The results suggested that people who multi-tasked were actually not more effective. As a matter of fact, the more people did multi-task, the less effective they became.
With all the external noise in our lives, leaders need to set aside time to be able to think deeply, to contemplate, focus, concentrate and be patient. This becomes an exercise of thinking for yourself. Often leaders are asked to articulate the leadership philosophy they have for their team and the type of culture they want to create. I challenge you to contemplate you. Look inward first. What do I want? How do I want to impact people? Why do I want to lead this team? Who am I and why am I here? Don’t just jump on your first thoughts, let them simmer. Ask why you feel the way you do, and find your own reality.