Define Reality and Provide Hope: Which is More Important for Leaders to Do Today?

Published on: September 2017

Written by: Jessica Parisi

By Jessica Parisi, President and CEO of BTS USA

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 change.” Different phrasing, but the concept is the same.


Define Reality and Provide Hope


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 is in 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 their 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 were 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:

  • One 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!”
  • 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.”
  • A leading investment bank was trying to empower the frontline, and the executive team was talking about their new operating model. Finally, one of the executives decided to share with her peers the following: “Can you hear ourselves? Every time we are talking about a new work flow, or new operating model, one of us says, ‘well, we can’t move the people into the roles until we’ve defined the process.’ Team, if we can’t starting trusting our people and letting them design the workflow, we will never have an enabled frontline. We don’t need processes to protect the company from our people – if our people know we trust them, and we give them the context, they will do great work and define the process for themselves!”
  • An airline had a strategy planning process that had become so robust that they ended up having a whole planning team in addition to the strategy function to support the process – essentially, they had planners for the planners, and none of them were line leaders. As a result, leaders spent most of the year planning and preparing to plan, with very little doing. A new executive helped the company see the error and shut down both functions.
What it comes down to: tone & responsible mindset

For leaders that have been with a company for a while and are now facing the need to change, communicating what needs to stop and where the areas of over-rotation are can be very difficult. It’s easier to come in from the outside and “tell the truth” because you had nothing to do with the company’s history and current struggles. But when a leader who has been with the company can successfully communicate these harsh realities, it is extraordinarily powerful.

Being able to do so requires a responsible mindset. The leader has to acknowledge that they are part of the reason why the company is where it is, and that the thing that is no longer serving the company now may have even been their idea in the previous years. But who cares? The key is that the idea was important in the past – so honor it, celebrate it! Remind everyone of the place that it served in your company’s precious history. And then, most importantly, move forward and talk about how it is now holding us back.

In terms of style, let’s look at Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, who’s famously had a 100% employee approval rating on Glassdoor1 – his town halls and communications are real. His tone and message are prepared, but they are also authentic, human, casual and normal. He uses mainly a question-and-answer format, with less prepared points – he knows what he’s going to say, but he’s also very comfortable saying “I don’t have the answer right now.” And then what does he do? By the end of the week, he finds the answer – and sends it out. That’s human, that’s real, that’s caring for your people by letting them in on the truth and being responsive.

In contrast, I was at another company’s offsite with their top 300 leaders, and I could tell that the leaders felt that they had to be perfect and buttoned up, and couldn’t take any risks. It seemed like that was an unspoken expectation of being an executive. But that, in and of itself, was a problem – the tone was fake, it was inauthentic, and the words were so polished that the whole thing lacked depth and energy.

So why is defining reality more important today?

As discussed in this post a few weeks ago, the technological advancements fueling new consumption and business models are causing speed and the “relentless consumer” to be two major forces in today’s business considerations. These days, a set vision and purpose have a shelf-life for a few years – minimally one year, or if very disruptive and grand perhaps a decade. But these trends are causing reality to shift real-time, so being able to watch it, study it, and articulate how its evolving is an ongoing pursuit that never rests.

As such, leaders must go slow to go fast when articulating how the company’s culture is over-rotated and which are the most important problems to solve. Without an accurate definition of reality:

  • The team is vulnerable to outside firms pushing best practices that are good ideas, just not for your company at this time.
  • You as the leader lose credibility and people won’t hear your words when providing hope.

In summary, leaders spend a lot of time articulating and defining the core problems in their business and company. Some keep it in the board room, but the most successful leaders communicate it broadly and bring the entire company along in the same view of their history and current reality. Don’t be afraid to share the reality – share it loudly, share it with candor and humor, be yourself and be ready for that neatly defined reality to shift on you in a few months… the passion, engagement and loyalty will follow.