Max Dupree has said that, “The first responsibility of leadership is to define reality”. In doing that there are some things to which leaders need pay attention if they are to be successful in defining reality.
Head in sand1. Not everybody wants the reality defined. Sometimes it suits various stakeholders to maintain whatever illusions exist and to maintain the entrenched viewpoint that represents ‘current reality’. For a leader to attempt to challenge that or change that will invariably be met with stiff opposition.
2. Reality is subjective. Your reality may not be the person’s reality. In fact, it seldom is. This means that as a leader intent on ‘defining reality’ you will need to take care to be cognisant of the various perspectives that exist when it comes to the shared reality. ‘Our reality’ seldom is seen by one and all in the same way and this is what makes defining reality both complex and challenging. The reality is that we see the world not as it is but rather as we are. Understanding how you see (and perhaps don’t see) the world – or reality, is essential.
3. Reality is dynamic. Reality can shift quickly and no sooner has reality been defined than it breaks free of such shackles and morphs into an entirely different thing. This means that a leader you can never be complacent having defined reality nor can you ever be completely sure that you have done so (defined reality). Understanding the shifting nature of reality means that you are better prepared for when such shifts occur.
4. Ignoring reality is not an option. In a world of disruptive change, one in which the disruption is ubiquitous, as a leader others look to you to provide some sort of clarity and direction in the midst of this disruption. Of course this tees-up up a deeper conversation as to the distinction between authority and leadership but the simple reality is that others are watching you. Should you choose to not see what is obvious to everyone else, leadership credibility can dissipate alarmingly quickly. This is not to say that you need to have all the answers – you don’t; nor is it to suggest that your role is to always provide direction and certainty – it isn’t. Smart leaders understand their role in bringing about adaptive change and the principles underpinning adaptive intelligence. They don’t always ‘act’ (as others would expect and like them to) but they don’t ignore what is going on and their ‘inaction’ is intentional and not a default setting based on their ignorance.
5. Good questions can be the best way to define reality. By asking others what they see as the ‘current reality’ is a good starting point for you as a leader intent on defining reality. Questions such as, ‘what are the questions we should be asking but aren’t?’ or ‘what is it we aren’t seeing?’ invite engagement and assessment of current reality. For far too long leaders have seen questions as the ‘enemy’ – as something to be avoided, rather than what they are – the best tool a leader can have in his or her toolbox! Smart leaders ask good questions and when it comes to defining reality, a question is a great place to start.
So in closing let me ask you this, as a leader, to what extent have you exercised your, ‘first responsibility’?

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