George Ambler

Helping Leaders Grow


The First Job of a Leader is to Face Reality

As humans we seem to have an infinite capacity to live in denial. Whilst 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 the it will somehow disappear or that someone will come up with a magical solution.

Leading in turbulent times requires leaders to face and deal with reality for success. Facing reality means that leaders take time to continuously assess and orientate themselves to the fast changing business environment. Facing reality requires leaders to remain open to new information, ready to adapt their strategies in support of their vision.

Successful Leaders Face Reality

The first job of a leader maybe to face reality, however it’s often the most neglected leadership practice.

“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, Leadership is an Art

As leaders we get caught up in talking about grand vision, bold goals and exciting plans. Whilst vision is necessary, it’s insufficient. We cannot lead effectively unless we are willing to face reality. Yet it seems that many leaders choose to ignore reality and live in a world of their own making. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, so strongly believed in facing reality that he made the following mantra a central part of his leadership philosophy.

“Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were.” – Jack Welch

Jack Welch encouraged his management team to “face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were”. His advice is especially important when leading in turbulent times, when decision making has significant impact and far reaching consequences. Jack 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, hoped 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.” – Jack Welch, Former CEO General Electric

Facing Reality is a Leadership Imperative

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great highlights, in his research on what makes companies great, that it was important that they “confront the brutal facts of the current reality”. Confronting the brutal fact of current reality and to rally the people to overcome is the leaders responsibility.

It’s the responsibility of a leader to define reality and provide hope. 

It’s the responsibility of a leader to define reality and provide hope. Leaders that fail to define and face reality are failing to lead! When leaders fail to face reality, they start living in denial, unwilling to deal with reality, the end result? Leadership failure.

“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 Galbraith

When leaders fail to respond to the anxiety of their people, when they fail to respond to the reality of their constituents, they enter the beginning of leadership decline.

Leaders have a difficult time facing reality. Leaders tend to rationalise, justify and defend their existing decisions and thinking, in doing so they loose touch. Failing to face reality means corrective action is never taken or delayed and the situation deteriorates. Convincing ourselves that things are better or different from reality is never a good idea.

Thinking about how you are leading in these turbulent times.

  • Are you facing reality or living in denial?
  • What reality do you need to face?
  • What reality are you avoiding?

“Leadership is about creating a domain in which human beings continually deepen their understanding of reality and become more capable of participating in the unfolding world. Ultimately, leadership is about creating new realities.” – Peter Senge


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  1. Mike Howard

    Great article and very important leadership points. Appreciate it.

  2. Suresh Kumar

    Good article. The leader must face reality, or he’ll end up wearing the ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’.

  3. Chuck

    Please foward your excellent article to all of the elected officials in Washington!

  4. sajfar

    It’s been a long time since I can say I have read a great article. This was truly great!!!! Now if we can just get people to do it.

  5. Ioan Poclitaru

    Thank you, a very good article. Without neglecting the reality
    inside and outside their organizations, the leaders should keep their dreams
    even sometimes the reality might say something different. Usually, an
    outstanding achievement faces a lot of cons in the early stage. The real leader
    uses the dream for changing reality by fighting the cons.

  6. Marcelo Almeida

    Very good article. Congratulations. In fact, during turbulence times the only thing that will really help you is to behaving that way. Your team will feel that your acts are connected to what is happening and your credibility will grow naturally. Of course, you will have to measure the consequences, but definitely is the best way to have a team working together.

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