Photo by Vanessa Sezini on Unsplash

Amongst the many fond memories of my 2 months’ in Boston that’s rapidly drawing to a close, is that  at any given time of day, on almost any day of the week, I see runners taking on the streets of Boston. Boston hosts the United States’ oldest marathon (the Boston Marathon), boasts beautiful running trails, and seems to have an endless number of motivated runners. As a runner, it was not hard for me to fit my running schedule into the typical AMP day and be part of the Boston running community while living here.

The Harvard Business School (HBS) campus offers many running routes. The one I enjoy the most is along the Charles River. The Charles River is an extraordinary recreational resource  running through the very heart of Greater Boston. I have been in Boston since the beginning of September, as a participant in HBS’ Advanced Management Programme (AMP). When it comes to the running scene, I am convinced that there is nothing that screams Boston more than a run along the Charles River. I almost always run in the morning using the several bridges to cross the river and create loops of my choice. My most favourite loop is the 7.6 mile (12.3 km) JFK Street to Longfellow Bridge.

With self-awareness through deep reflection as one of the main themes in the AMP leadership classes, I find that, during my time at HBS, my reflection has increased in frequency and quality, thanks to my Charles River morning run. Running has been a constant pleasure for me for two decades and its importance has evolved over the years due to the need to find time to be on my own and reflect. At HBS, my Living Group knows that nothing can come between going out for a run and me.

Yesterday morning I stepped out of McArthur Hall to a cold morning and a soft breeze as I headed to JFK Street to start my Charles River run, cherishing the time to reflect on my life journey and to process the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in myself for two months at one of the world’s leading business schools, with 161 senior executives from across the globe. After about half an hour of running, I saw a homeless man sleeping on one of the benches along the river. I paused to reflect on this man’s homelessness in such a beautiful city and to express silent gratitude for the many people who helped me to escape homelessness in Johannesburg 20 years ago.

And as I continued running and reflecting, in no time, I found myself at the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. This bridge, spanning nearly half a mile, connects Boston and Cambridge. From this Bridge, I could see the skyline of both cities as I run across. I passed plenty of other runners on the bridge. I continued my run along the river towards the Science Museum and the Stockdale Paradox came to mind. Why? Because I was still thinking about the homeless man!

We recently discussed the Stockdale Paradox in one of our leadership classes. United States Navy Admiral James Stockdale who was the highest ranking prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict and led a resistance movement that kept him in solitary confinement most of his prison time.  He was in North Vietnam prison from September 9, 1965 until February 12, 1973. You can’t imagine what Stockdale went through, yet he survived. “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. At the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever they might be. “Good to Great” author Jim Collins identified this as “The Stockdale Paradox.”

Whilst Stockdale’s torture as a prisoner of war makes homelessness look like a breeze, his message that in the most difficult situations, sheer optimism isn’t enough, what separates those who succeed from those who don’t is how they deal with challenges in their environment, is what took me off streets of Johannesburg, and is what can take the Boston homeless man off the streets. I am convinced that anyone can put the Stockdale Paradox to work in their life.