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A Leader’s First Responsibility Is To Define Reality
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Leader’s First Responsibility Is To Define Reality
By Dr John C Maxwell

The first time I heard that it is the leader’s responsibility to define real­ity was from leadership expert and author Max DePree. His assertion made sense to me instantly, and I agreed with it. But that doesn’t mean I was naturally good at it.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned about leadership, this one has been the most difficult. I could be the poster child for positive thinking. I am wired to give hope and encourage others. I just can’t help myself. As result, my philosophy has been a little like that of humorist Garrison Keillor, who said, “Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye and deny it” Truthfully, my aversion to being realistic and my occasional reluctance to embrace the fact that it is a leader’s responsibility to define reality has cost me greatly. But at the age of fifty-four, I finally learned my lesson!

You can't define what you don't see
I have often taught that people change only when they hurt enough that they have to, learn enough that they want to, or receive enough they are able to.In my case, pain prompted me to learn. In 2001, I came face to face with a painful reality: One of my companies was steadily losing money and its effort seemed to be going in too may directions. This problem did not appear suddenly. For five years there had been indicators that I should make changes, but I was willing to make them. I needed to change my leadership team, but I didn't want to do it. I loved my inner circle. And year after year, I was willing to absorb the small losses that the company experienced. But after five year, the losses began to add up and take their toll.

My brother, Larry, who excels in business and always has a firm grasp on reality, kept exhorting me to face the truth and make some tough decisions. As a leader, I know the first rule of winning is "Don't beat yourself." By not facing reality and making some uncomfortable changes, I was beating myself, and I was beginning to feel discouraged. So when Margaret and I left to visit London for two weeks, I resolved to wrestle with the issues and come to some kind of decision. To help me think things though and process my decisions, I read a book that had just been published: Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch. In it I read the following six rules for successful leadership:

  1. Control your destiny, or someone else will.
  2. Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were.
  3. Be candid with everyone.
  4. Don't manage, lead.
  5. Change before you have to.
  6. If you don't have a competitive advantage, don't compete.

As I read this advice from the CEO of CEOs, I realized that five of his six rules for successful leadership were about facing reality. It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. When I returned home, I gath­ered my key people around me, read them the six rules, and announced the changes I would be making within the company.

For the next three years I kept Welch’s six rules in my briefcase. I often pulled them out and reread them, especially when I was facing yet another difficult leadership decision.

Vision ≠ Fantasy
One of the pitfalls that can stop potential leaders is the desire to focus on vision to the detriment of facing reality. But good leaders are both visionary and realistic. The Law of the Scoreboard in my book The 17 Indisputable Law of Teamwork states, “The team can make adjustments when it knows where it stands.” In other words, reality is the foundation for positive change. If you don’t face reality, then you will not be able to make necessary changes.

Bill Easum, president and senior manag­ing partner in Easum, Bandy and Associates, asserts, “Realistic leaders are objective enough to minimize illusions. They understand that self-deception can cost them their vision.” That was true for me. My high belief in people and my desire to protect people I loved got in the way of facing the truth—and being honest with them when their performance was hurt­ing the company.

If you are optimistic, as I am, and you naturally encourage people, as I do, then you may need to take extra care to look reality in the eye and keep yourself grounded. Continually cast a realistic eye on…

• The Situation—it is often worse than you think.

• The Process—it usually takes longer than you think.

• The Price—it always costs more than you think.

If you lack realism today, then you may lack credibility with others tomorrow. As my friend Andy Stanley says, “Facing current reality is often nasty, but necessary.”

Reality Check
In Managing in Turbulent Times, Peter Drucker writes, “A time of tur­bulence is a dangerous time, but its greatest danger is a temptation to deny reality.” To guard myself from that danger, a few years ago I wrote the fol­lowing questions. They help me handle the nasty but necessary realities of life. Perhaps they can also help you.

Questions 1 Ask to Help Me Define Reality

1. What is reality in this situation? Do others agree with my assessment?

2. Can I identify each issue? Can I break down reality to better understand it?

3. Can the issues be fixed? Separate the solvable from the unsolvable.

4. What are the options? Establish a game plan.

5. Am I willing to follow the game plan? My commitment as a leader is essential.

6. Will my leadership team follow the game plan? Their commitment as leaders is also essential.

These questions force me to look realistically at the issues rather than glossing over and putting a positive spin on them.

As leaders, what we do—or don’t do—always has consequences. We can try to maintain an unrealistic outlook or lifestyle, but someday we will have to pay a realistic price for it. There is no avoiding it. That was the case for me. After years of losses in my company, I had to sell a sizable interest in an investment to cover them. Every cent came out of pocket. Someone once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, and that should be sufficient.” As a leader, I was the one who was fooled. And the worst thing was that I had done it to myself! The greatest fool is the one who fools himself.

The ability to define reality as a leader means embracing realistic think­ing so that we can see the consequences of our actions further and with greater clarity than those around us. Why is that important? When you are a leader, other people are depending on you. My inability to correctly define reality in my organization ultimately hurt not only me but others. People lost jobs, teams were torn apart, dreams went unrealized, and most sadly, some friendships ended.

Guarding Against Unrealistic Thinking
Although I finally learned this lesson. I still do not trust myself in this area. My mental and emotional wiring will always make me want to think the best and overlook the negative. So I have to guard against this natural bent. Asking myself questions to help me define reality isn’t enough. I have to do more. Here are four practices I try to follow continually:

1. Admit My Weakness
Just as a person facing a drinking problem is helped by going to an AA meeting and saying, “I am an alcoholic,” I must confess to others, “I am an unrealistic person.” Admitting my weakness is a first step toward recovery. You can’t define reality if you won’t face reality.

2. Embrace Realistic People
The old saying “birds of a feather flock together” is really true. I like to be around people who are like me. That may be a good thing when I want to have fun, but it can be a bad thing when I want to lead well. I need peo­ple to complete me, to be strong where I am weak. An effective leadership team has members who complement one another.

3. Ask for Honesty from Others
All leaders need to have a group of people around them who will tell them what they really think. They don’t need a bunch of yes-men and yes­-women. The only way a leader will get honest feedback is by as king for it, and by treating people well when they actually give it. However, many lead­ers aren’t secure enough to ask for it or to respond to it without defensive­ness. Sometimes we don’t want to hear the truth even though we need to. The reality is that many people don’t want to face reality. That’s why it is a good idea to ask others to help us.

4. Invite “Fresh Eyes” to Check Me Out
It’s amazing what you don’t see when you are in a familiar environ­ment. The longer I lead the more I realize I need people who are not in my organization to look at me and my organization. I have often paid outside consultants to come in, observe, and tell me what they see. I value what they have to say.

You may be thinking, That’s a lot to be doing: looking at Jack Welch’s rules, asking yourself questions to define reality using four practices to guard against unrealistic thinking! Isn’t that overdoing it? Maybe it would be over-doing it for you—but it’s not for me. Because realistic thinking is an area of weakness for me, I need to come at it from a variety of angles and have more than one system to correct the way I do things.

Defining reality is the starting point for good leadership. It’s like finding “You Are Here” on a map before trying to get where you’re going. As Jim Collins points out in Good to Great, good leaders who lead great companies face reality and make changes accordingly. “You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.” Never forget, the way you define reality determines where and how you lead. And where and how you lead determines where your followers end up. In other words, a lot is depending on it.

Application Exercises
1. What kind of thinker are you? On a scale of 1 (realism) to 10 (optimism), where are you? Do you naturally think and speak in terms of best-case sce­narios (as I do) or worst-case scenarios? Now ask friends, colleagues, and your spouse to rate you. If you are highly optimistic (others might call you unrealistic), you need to create systems in your life to keep you from lead­ing your followers in a wrong direction.

2. Who speaks truth in your life? All leaders need people around them who are willing to speak hard truths. Who will tell you what you need to hear? If you have people who do that, affirm them for it and ask them to con­tinue to do so. If you don’t, find some. You don’t need people who will knock you down—just people who will help you stay down-to-earth.

3. Where do you need a reality check? If you are not seeing positive results in an area you are leading, use the list of questions in the chapter to help you see if you are looking at the situation realistically. Ask yourself:

• What is reality in this situation? Do others agree with my assessment?

• Can I identify each issue? Can I break down reality to better understand it?

• Can the issues be fixed? Separate the solvable from the unsolvable.

• What are the options? Establish a game plan.

• Am I willing to follow the game plan? My commitment as a leader is essential.

• Will my leadership team follow the game plan? Their commitment as leaders is also essential.




"You are the light of the world. let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."
Matthew 5:14,16

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