Leaders Do This: Define Reality

One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Max DePree:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with this quote, but I do hear it from time to time in a variety of works. I think it’s true — a leader has the primary task of defining reality, that is, to state clearly what is happening in an organization. This job is vital to the health of a team because reality is the most real thing (wow — thanks, “The Matrix”). What I mean is that if the real thing is misunderstood, then there’s no common ground. Defining reality is not easy because it assumes that the leader has the ability to see things from pretty much all angles and make a concise statement about what’s up.

I think that the Gulf Oil spill/gush is a great example. With all of the voices — politicians, commentators, academics, executives — we need someone to say what’s really going on. Followers need to know, quite honestly, what should concern them. Leaders that define reality are like the cerebral cortex of an organization, naming and classifying a situation so that we know how best to function. Look at the cry of the people right now: will someone tell us what’s going on with offshore drilling? Should I cancel my trip to Florida? Are fossil fuels sustainable? Will Rush Limbaugh keep laughing demonically?

Politics aside, I really think that President Obama is displaying good leadership in this whole BP Gulf Oil Spill. Even though we’re still surrounded by questions, he’s defining reality. He’s taking action which means that he must nail down some facts. That is the responsibility of the president, the CEO and the Pastor.

If we don’t define reality, people run amok. There is no grounding, no basis, no calming truth. Leaders who avoid calling things like they are, hesitate to say what’s harsh and hold back because it might offend are not defining reality. They are merely being diplomats. There is a major difference. We don’t need diplomats. Leaders make decisions and people dislike the decisions, perhaps even turning their dislike toward the leader. It’s no fun. But it must be done.

Courageously define reality. This is the best way to serve your people.

Here’s how it really is. And here’s why it matters. And now, as a team with a common view of reality, let’s figure out the next best step.

Call it like it is. May the Holy Spirit guide you as you serve.

PS: The rest of Max’s quote often gets left off. Here’s the whole thing:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.

About radamdavidson

I'm a husband, dad, and pastor living in Portage, Michigan. I suppose I'm a euphoric melancholy generalist with average skills, experiences, and passions across several intertwined disciplines and hobbies including music, speaking, writing, leadership, ministry, and collecting cultural artifacts from the 1980's -- mostly vintage boomboxes. You can read my blog at www.radamdavidson.com, subscribe to my podcast (RadCast) or friend me on facebook.com/radamdavidson. about.me/radamdavidson
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