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The 1st Responsibility of a Leader: Defining Reality

2 minutes

For roughly five years, once a month, I had lunch with the same guy on the same day of the month at the same restaurant and at the same booth. Although we never deemed it a “mentor/protege” relationship (Seinfeld, anyone?), it was very much this. I had recently awoken to the fact that I would be much better off surrounding myself by people smarter than me. And while many conversations are memorable, the following one greatly impacted the way I see the world.

We were discussing leadership and the role of a leader when he let me on to his basic leadership framework. Quoting leadership guru Max Dupree, he stated that he believed that the first responsibility of a leader is to “define reality.”

Ever since, I have been attempting to unpack this very statement.  What does this actually mean? What’s the point? What is the process?

I recall back in 2008 during the auto crisis,Bill Ford, Ford Motor Company’s CEO (at the time), addressing the public regarding Ford’s status and inevitable restructuring plan. As he discussed his reasoning for turning down the “bail out” offer, the current revenue situation, the inevitable job loss, and ensuing projections, it was undoubtedly a grim moment. But at the same time, it was a remarkable example of his willingness to “define reality.” In fact, it is arguably the “turn around” moment for the entire company, who this past year posted a 2 billion dollor plus net income.

Moments like these have seemed to surface more and more the last few years during the recession. I recently spoke to a CEO of a large construction corporation who felt like he was 2 years late to the “defining reality” conversation.  This often happens because we’re scared to look at things “as is.” We want to believe things to be better/different than they actually are.

And while defining reality moments are often triggered by hard circumstances as such, the process might be even more important when things are going well. What might it mean to do an analysis on “why” things are working well. Is it a particular process? Is it the people? A recent idea?

So, what does a “defining reality” process actually look like?

While there are no hard and fast rules, here are a few thoughts. Carve out an hour (or better yet, an entire day) sometime this month and ask yourself these questions (or some version of):

  • What am I choosing to ignore?
  • What is working well? For my company? For my life?
  • Where is my greatest drain?
  • What are all the factors contributing to my current situation?

Here’s the point. Any assessment is pointless unless it’s brutally honest. As leaders, creatives, and entrepreneurs, we must develop the habit of not only looking to what things “could be,” but how things actually are – for without the ability to actually see reality as is (good or bad), we’ll never know where to go (or at least, the best opportunities to go).

Lastly, just in case your curious, the second responsibility of a leader according to both my mentor (and Max DuPree) is this… “say thanks.”

So, “thanks” for engaging.