I love positive people, and hope that most of the time I’m one myself. But what I don’t appreciate is when I, or anyone else, denies reality to be positive. It is important to acknowledge the reality before us as well as when something is a fake that seems awfully close to the real thing.
Recently here in Asia I experienced a bit of a shock after eating in a restaurant. I paid my bill and began to walk out, stopping to take a look at the man sitting in the chair at the front reading a newspaper. I had walked right past him on entering, but now he was right in front of me. I couldn’t miss him. I felt like saying hello, he looked so friendly. Imagine my shock when I realized that this kindly looking man was actually not real, but a well done sculptured image. (see photo)
Now the reader may be laughing at my obvious lack of attention (or failing eyesight), but he did look very real! It is easy at times to mistake what is front of us for reality when it is actually a fake. It is also easy to deny the reality that also could be right in front of us. This especially is a problem for leaders. According to Max De Pree, a businessman and author who I quoted in a recent post, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” To define it, not to deny it.
Being positive as a leader and not denying the realities around us do not have to be mutually exclusive things. In John Maxwell’s latest book, Leadershift, discussed in my last post, he tells the story of USA Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale. This man was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years. When interviewed later on who prevailed in prison and got out, and who collapsed and never made it out, and what was the secret to survive, Stockdale says “That’s easy, the optimists never made it out.” (pg. 64)
Surprising? We would expect that optimists would be the first to survive, right?The most positive would be the ones to thrive? But Stockdale said no. In fact he is quoted as saying these powerful words: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end-which you can never afford to lose-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (pg. 65)
Maxwell calls these the “twin expectations of faith and fact.” Hope is a combination of both, not a denying of the brutal realities. We can truly give people hope when we have faced reality, as Maxwell writes hope “must come from a place of authenticity because you can’t fake hope.” Indeed. An old Chinese man reading a newspaper, however real he looks, can’t be confused with the real thing. In a similar way, when we try to be positive when all around us know that reality differs with our words, we risk seeming shallow and inauthentic.
It is not easy to face reality and yet keep a spirit of faith and hope. But it can be done. And leaders must do it. Maxwell writes “As leaders we can’t deny reality, nor should we try to sugarcoat it when communicating with our people. We need to bring reality into the conversation as soon as possible. In other words, we should strive to be up-front with the hard part of any journey we plan to take others on.”
And he ends the section with these words that ring so true to me after almost 40 years of leadership, “I’ve made it a regular practice to look for and mention any downside to a process I’m trying to communicate. I want people to know there is a price to pay for progress.”
We all probably can think of examples when leaders, either of nations, churches, or even in our own families, have not told us the truth of a situation. It hurts even more perhaps if they have denied reality, though their hearts have perhaps been very right wanting to spare us (or themselves) pain.
I want to be a positive and inspiring leader. But I also want to be able to level with the people I lead, inspiring them from an internal hope that has faced despair and never given up.
What kind of leader do you want to be?