About five years ago, I had the privilege of talking with a few executives at 3M shortly after their current CEO took over. At that time, I remember learning about the new CEO’s fresh expectations for his leaders. He shared, “I have two expectations for a 3M leader: that you define reality and provide hope.” Easy to agree with, difficult to do well.
This isn’t a new concept – the original quote is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “The leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope.” In Thomas Friedman’s recent book, Thank You for Being Late, he leverages the definition of leadership offered by Harvard University expert, Ronald Feiftez, who says,
“The role of a leader is ‘to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make a change.” Different phrasing, but the concept is the same.
Defining & Communicating Reality: Can “Calling a Spade a Spade” Be More Inspiring than Providing a Compelling Purpose & Vision?
A mistake I see occasionally made by leaders is that they prefer to provide hope instead of share the brutal facts of the current state of their business. I also see leaders spend more time on the positive and sugar-coat or only superficially discuss the bad news or the “harsh look” at the current situation.
It’s understandable – I think it’s human nature to want to share the aspirations, communicate the progress, and celebrate wins and momentum over discuss the potentially uncomfortable issues. Additionally, perhaps it’s for fear that people will lose motivation or confidence in their leadership, or that the conversation might spiral down into negativity and it would be hard to build the hope back up. However, in my experience, people’s reactions are typically the opposite.
I have had a front row seat watching some of the best executives across industries address their broader organizations, both in large forums and in smaller groups. What has been evident throughout these conversations is that the leaders who first accurately and brutally “call a spade a spade” don’t get torn down, they get standing ovations.
You can feel the relief in the room, and sense that the people trust their leader because the leader has demonstrated that they see the truth. Once a leader does this, then they have earned the right to share the bigger purpose – and it’s actually believable because he/she has demonstrated they know the problems that they will have to solve on the path to achieving the vision.
What Communicating the Company’s Reality Looks Like in Action
The following are some examples of how different leaders are able to define reality, point out a habit that had once before served a purpose but was now getting in the way of turning strategy into action, and push the company forward:
i) A large tech company had an issue with the “cult of the leader” – meaning the majority of decisions would rise to the CEO and people were hesitant to make their own decisions for fear they weren’t equipped to do so or might make the wrong move.
Recognizing this, one of the executives brought it up with the broader group of leaders: “How come I hear, in nearly every meeting, people saying ‘What would XX (the CEO) do?’ or ‘I wonder what XX would say?’ People, he is one person! One person can’t have all the answers nor the insights or perspective to know what to do. We need to stop saying and thinking this!”
ii) A smaller software company was in a common pivot: from selling to developers and the SMB market to going after enterprise customers. The CEO beautifully empathized with what was on everyone’s mind: “Team, we have to talk about something dear to all of us. We started this company with the premise that elegant code and user experience would be what we stand for. Now that we are deciding to win enterprise customers, their requirements are different.
It will require more of our time to hit security and compliance standards, which means less time for elegance. This core principle served us beautifully for the past five years, and while it is still core to our brand, the other reality is that we can’t even play in the enterprise space without these new requirements. We will fight for this balance every day.”
The reality is that all businesses need to continue to adapt to their markets and this has to start from the leadership team. Things change and the goal for every business should be to go from startup to enterprise and sometimes laying it out in black and white is the best way to advance the company and keep the team aligned.