Nobody ever told me it was going to be easy.
Leading human beings in any endeavor is, as Warren Bennis is famous for writing about in his seminal book, akin to “Herding Cats”. At the end of the day, leadership is about being true to who you are and being totally honest about yourself, about the circumstances in which you and your organization find yourselves and about being brutally honest with the people around you.
Being brutally honest is hard. It’s hard because the real truth is often highly critical or unpleasant as reality bites sometimes. One of the hardest lessons we learn as a child is to say ‘sorry’ and apologize for something we did not know was wrong. Once we were taught it was wrong (usually in the moment and usually by our parents), we were then ‘forced’ to own up to the mistake and apologize. This was always the first sign of our accountability. I remember how difficult I found admitting my mistake and actually spitting out the word ‘sorry’ face-to-face with someone I had hurt.
As sympathetic beings, we are deeply affected by the truth. Why else are facts usually described as ‘cold and hard’? We try and avoid bad news and we tend to find the good in most everything and everyone. These are admirable traits especially since there are about 7 billion of us sharing the same planet. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to be optimistic, positive and constructive. At times, we need to be cheerleaders, cajolers, coaches and psychologists. We need to see the potential in people before they even realize it in themselves and that takes a certain amount of optimism and positivism.
But when you boil it down to its core, leaders need to be realists on an hourly basis. In order to make the right decisions, to determine the optimal direction and focus for their organization, leaders need to be able to “…handle the truth” to borrow a phrase from Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “A Few Good Men”. Not only that, leaders need to actually seek it out in a dispassionate, almost clinical way. In this terabyte per second of the ‘Big Data’ world we live in, the truth is not easy to come by. There are distractions and sleights of hand every hour of every day. Finding the truth and being honest is harder than ever.
It may be against our nature to avoid ‘bad news’ but it can turn us into ‘reality avoiders’ if we are not careful. My credo has always been that bad news delivered quickly was good news – at least we could do something about it before it derails things. Leaders, especially, need to ensure their antennae are attuned to what is fact and what is not. They must verify and authenticate. They must be able to confront their worst fears and stare down catastrophe. They must act rationally and calmly in the face of adversity. Some leaders have a difficult time accepting good news. This is equally difficult for some hard driving leaders but they must be able to recognize good work when they see it and praise those who are responsible.
We so often hear the phrase, “The hard thing and the right thing are often the same thing” – but it rings true when analyzing leadership competence – it can be the difference between highly effective and less effective leadership. I know of leaders who create their own reality and then lead their organizations to follow the wrong paths, usually to stagnant or minimal growth or worse, over the proverbial cliff of contraction. Leaders must put people and systems in place that can provide accurate and timely assessments of their business and their organizational effectiveness and a realistic appraisal of the state of the industry and the economic environment. This is the only way leaders can be truly informed and effective themselves. This is true at all levels, all the way up to and including the highest office in the land.
Next time you sign up for a leadership assignment, ensure you steel yourself for “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…”