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The Brutal Facts

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great states that good-to-great companies infuse their decision-making processes with “the brutal facts of reality.” He further shares that Pitney Bowes executive Fred Purdue was quoted as saying,“My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things, even if what I find can scare the hell out of me.” Are you talking about the “scary squiggly things” that might impede you or your organization’s future? You need to be because that’s what is required of leaders.When you decide to be a great leader, you must decide to no longer brush the difficult, I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-it issues under the rug, but instead, put each square in the middle of the table for discussion. It means you don’t hide from the awkwardness and discomfort. You are genuine and direct about issues that may be affecting people’s hearts and minds.George Ambler says, “As humans, we seem to have an infinite capacity to live in denial. While denial is a commonly used coping mechanism, it’s deadly for leaders. Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon to find leaders living in denial, failing to face a threatening shift in reality; a changing marketplace or changing customer expectations. Unfortunately,many leaders ignore or deny their new reality, hoping it will somehow disappear or someone will come up with a magical solution.”Is that you? Do you delay or deny the realities in your situation? Leading in turbulent times requires leaders to face and deal with reality for success. This requires leaders to take time to continuously assess and orientate themselves to the fast-changing culture and its impact on what we do. Facing reality requires leaders to remain open to new information; ready to adapt their strategies in support of their vision.The first job of a leader is most likely to face reality. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max DuPree, former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. However, facing/defining reality and showing gratitude are also perhaps the most neglected leadership practices.As leaders, we get carried away in talking about the big vision, bold goals, and adventurous plans. But this is not enough. We have to bookend that with facing reality. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, so strongly believed in facing reality that he made this mantra a central part of his leadership philosophy: “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were.”Welch went on to explain why facing reality was such an important part of his leadership philosophy. “The art of managing and leading comes down to a simple thing: determining and facing reality about people, situations, products, and then acting decisively and quickly on that reality. Think how many times we have procrastinated, hoping it would get better. Most of the mistakes you’ve made have been through not being willing to face into it, straight in the mirror that reality you find, then taking action on it. That’s all managing is: defining and acting. Not hoping. Not waiting for the next plan. Not rethinking it. Getting on with it. Doing it. Defining and doing it.”Facing reality is a leadership imperative. From there, it’s the responsibility of a leader to provide hope. It’s the responsibility of a leader to define reality and provide hope. Especially in troubled and turbulent times, leadership failure is certain if these imperatives are not bold and central. “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” – John Kenneth GalbraithFailing to face reality means corrective action is never taken, or it’s delayed, and the situation deteriorates. Convincing ourselves that things are better or different from reality is never a good idea.One of the things that makes it easy to avoid facing reality is the way the people we lead think about us. Sometimes the main thing they worry about is us: pleasing us, placating us, trying to get power from us. The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse. This is one of the key reasons Jim Collins says fewer charismatic leaders often produce better long-term results than their more charismatic counterparts.Charisma can be as much a liability as an asset. Strength of personality can sow the seeds of problems when people filter the brutal facts from you. It sounds very strange to think of something as enviable as charisma as being a potential liability, but it can defeat your effectiveness without conscious attention. Winston Churchill understood the liabilities of his strong personality, and he aggressively compensated for them during his leadership in World War II. He asserted boldly and without wavering—Britain would not just survive but would be victorious as a great nation. This was while the whole world was predicting and even begging Britain to make any compromise for peace despite the whole world wondering not if but when Britain would sue for peace. During the darkest days, when the U.S. was still trying to stay out of it, Churchill said, “We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this, nothing will turn us. Nothing! We will never parley. We will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land. We shall fight him by sea. We shall fight him in the air. Until, with God’s help, we have rid the earth of his shadow.”That is what he believed. That is what he shared with everyone who would listen. But he never neglected to confront the brutal facts. He was afraid that his powerful personality might prevent people from sharing the news to him in its most bleak form, so early on he created the Statistical Department, which existed for the sole purpose of gathering and delivering to him the unfiltered facts; the most brutal information about the war. This was continuous and complete. He relied heavily on this special unit throughout the war, repeatedly asking for just the facts. He found it to be emboldening, not frightening. As the Nazis raged across Europe, Churchill slept soundly. “I . . . had no need for cheering dreams,” he wrote.“Facts are better than dreams.”Now you might be wondering, “How do you motivate people with brutal facts? The truth is—expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time. When you have the right people in the right positions, they are already self-motivated. The question for the leader then is this: “How do I lead in such a way that I do not de-motivate them?” One of the most de-motivating things ever is a leader who ignores reality and then is swept away by events as they happen.Leadership is about casting a great vision. But leadership is also about creating a climate where the truth is heard, and the brutal facts confronted. The truly great leaders create an environment where the truth is encouraged and heard; where the people who tell the unfiltered truth are heard and valued.Confront the brutal facts because unless you face up to them, you can never be great.Think about how you are leading in these troubled times.

  • Are you facing reality or living in denial?

  • What reality do you need to face?

  • What reality are you avoiding?

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