Facing reality is challenging for leaders. When faced with a difficult situations our natural response is fight, freeze or flight. All of these reactions have disastrous outcomes. Learning to effectively face and respond to new emerging realities is therefore a critical leadership competence. Leaders and leadership teams that fail to face reality risk creating the following dysfunctional outcomes:
- Compromised decision making and poor judgement
- Loss of trust in the leader and the leadership team
- Low team and staff moral
- Lack of commitment to act
- Lack of urgency in responding to key leadership challenges
- Poor alignment across teams and business units
- Poor execution on critical strategic imperatives
These cripple an organisations ability to respond to a changing marketplace, technology disruptions and shifting customer expectations.
Facing reality may seem logical, even common sense, but it is extremely difficult in practice. A number of social, economic and psychological challenges prevent leaders from effectively observing and responding to reality. Recognising when a leaders is in denial is the first step on the path to effectively facing and responding to new realities. The following is a list of the ten warning signs of a leader in denial.
- Leaders who are isolated by their success. Nothing causes leaders to deny current reality more than past success. As humans, success quickly goes to our heads and it’s not long before we think we cannot fail. This arrogance and pride blinds us to changing reality. As we all have heard and seen, pride goes before the fall. Arrogant leaders fail to get critical feedback on changing reality and tend to over estimate their ability, soon they are taking on challenges too big for them leading to failure.
- Leaders who stubbornly act in ways that worked in the past. This trap is one that leaders of successful organisations fall into on a regular basis. Leaders continue to rely on strategies and tactics that have worked in the past, but are increasingly ineffective in addressing current challenges. Research has shown that successful organisations are more likely to deny the new realities, because the old realities worked so well for them. Older and more established organisations tend to stubbornly stick to the past habits and deny new realities.
- Leaders who blame external factors or others for the situation. Blame is often used as a distraction, freeing leaders from the difficult task of facing reality. Looking for someone or external factors to blame means that leaders don’t have deal with the situation. An important task of a leader is to face reality, this requires they accept the responsibility of defining reality and collaborating in search for a solution.
- Leaders who make excuses and don’t own their mistakes. Successful leaders don’t make excuses. Successful leaders own their mistakes, they take responsibility, they learn from them and move forward. However, leaders in denial put more energy into hiding their mistakes as opposed to taking responsibility and exploring ways to move forward.
- Leaders who do not allow for constructive dissent. High performing teams are known for their vigorous debate. Leaders in denial suppress dissenting views, they see dissent as unhealthy and as a lack of respect for their authority. By discouraging dissent leaders isolate themselves from a critical source of feedback. Successful teams use constructive dissent to explore issues from different perspectives, to get all the issues out into the open, to facilitate sound decision making and commitment to a course of action. People don’t learn by looking into a mirror, they learn by encountering difference. This requires constructive dissent.
- Leaders who sugarcoat current reality. Leaders in denial sugarcoat current reality, putting a positive spin on everything, this communicates to others that the new realities do not require change. However, facing reality requires that leaders are honest about the challenge being faced. Often leaders downplay current reality in an attempt to protect people from the challenge and not to create unnecessary concern. However, when people are treated as children by trying to keep them safe from reality, the result is broken trust, low levels of commitment, reduced urgency, putting the organisation into a false sense of security.
- Leaders who search for the silver bullet to fix everything. When faced with challenging situations, filled with uncertainty and rapid change leaders in denial look to the next management fad, consultant or marketing strategy as a way out, essentially the silver bullet – the magic solution to fix everything. Lurching from project to project in a unfocused search for the next big thing, all is a form of denial, leaders are looking outside themselves for the problem or the solution.
- Leaders who pursue perks, power and privilege. One of the more telling signs that a leader has lost touch with reality is the leader who seek perks, power and privilege. This leader has forgotten their role and purpose, the service of others and the organisations mission, instead they see success as a result of their greatness and thus pursue symbols of privilege.
- Leaders who are not open to learning and lack curiosity. Leaders in denial fail to recognise their need to learn and to re-learn. The seeds of failure are sown when leaders are closed to learning, no longer willing to be vulnerable, no longer curious and not willing to be challenged. These leaders deny that they need to learn how to respond differently in a turbulent world.
- Leaders who surround themselves with “Yes Men”. Leaders, seeking to re-enforce their ideas and thinking surround themselves with those who hold the similar views. This creates a very unhealthy core leadership team dynamic, one that is not open to critique, opposing ideas or constructive dissent. With a focus on maintaining the status quo the leadership team’s decision making process breaks down as they make decisions in isolation with and eye on pleasing the leader.
Leaders will not exhibit all of these at one time, however the more of these warning sign that can be identified the great the extent to which a leader is in denial. These signs are some of the key reasons why many organisations have become stuck in the past and continue to re-enforcing the status quo.
Ultimately, leaders who avoid reality and choose to live in denial are doomed to fail. The above warning signs are some of the indicators that you as leader may not be adequately facing reality.