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Good Leaders Know You Can’t Fight Reality

The ability to accept reality is one of the most useful, and most misunderstood, skills for a leader. It’s a concept that has been around for centuries in philosophy and more recently in psychology, and properly applied can help drive change. As Carl Jung wrote, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” But I don’t see acceptance applied enough by leaders today as a valuable tool for achieving better results.

Acceptance may not sound like a hugely valuable skill, especially because we hear so much about leaders whose force of will seems to defy reality. The most notable example is Apple’s Steve Jobs, whose reputation for pushing people to do the impossible has become the stuff of legends. Jobs is reported to have distorted his employees’ sense of scale, making them believe that an unachievable task was possible — dubbed the “Reality Distortion Field” by his colleagues. While there is admirable value in this force of will, this characteristic is often exaggerated in leaders who lack the balancing counterweight of also accepting reality. As Jack Welch, the other most written about business leader of our time said, “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.”

As a result, most of the poor leadership behavior I’ve observed has its roots in the inability to accept and work within the boundaries of what is happening, or the circumstances as they are. Unnecessarily harsh behavior, tantrums, aggressiveness, avoidance, and shutting people out can often be traced to leaders who are doing a lousy job of handling reality in the moment. A few years ago, I watched the CEO of a public company scream, “I will not accept this forecast!” at the president of one of his divisions, laced with some angry profanity. In the days that followed, the CEO and division president went back and forth, revising the revenue projections upward to more “acceptable” results, until the CEO finally OK’ed the next quarter’s forecast. While the numbers looked better on paper, they were not based on any real progress with customers or any reality within the business.

Fast forward to the end of quarter. The CEO was furious because the revenue numbers didn’t match the revised and more acceptable (to him) forecast. Ironically, the results were exactly on track with the initial forecast. As a result, the CEO abruptly initiated a round of layoffs and cut important internal investments to help the business operate more efficiently with customers. The numbers were telling the true story from the beginning, but the CEO wouldn’t accept and act on a reality he didn’t like. This created an avalanche of problems for employees and customers that negatively impacted future value of the business.

This situation could have gone down quite differently. The CEO and the division president could have collaborated on contingency plans for restoring the desired growth as well as expenses. But the CEO’s unwillingness to accept the reality of the situation foreclosed any meaningful discussion or potential for change.

A version of this disconnect happens in companies around the world every day. It is a classic example of a leader being unhappy about a circumstance, result, or even a person, and insisting that reality be different. The amount of time, effort, and energy I see wasted by leaders as they argue and fight about reality is astonishing. It takes courage to accept reality as it is, and only then can you and your team begin to make changes.

Here are three kinds of acceptance that leaders should focus on:

Accepting Results

Perhaps the worst has happened, or an outcome is simply bad. This can include a failed strategy, poor financial performance, loss of a job, or any other setback. Leaders can hem and haw, rant and rave, but until they can properly accept what has happened, they aren’t likely to move forward or lead anyone else forward.

This doesn’t mean you have to be “good” with the results. It’s about not channeling your energy into non-stop wishing that things were different, behaving unprofessionally, or arguing about the outcome. It may even require you to examine and accept your role in the results. Leaders must remember that not accepting or willfully fighting a result won’t change it. More importantly, it doesn’t put you in a strong position to make changes to prevent future failures.

Accepting Circumstances

Maybe timelines have been missed on important projects, or your return-to-office schedule has been thrown off by the Delta variant, or you are over budget and need to make important sacrifices. As leaders, we often face circumstances that are beyond our control. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, notes the importance of giving up control of what you never had control over to begin with, and making room for your emotional reaction without acting on every thought or negative feeling. She writes, “We see leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings — that’s inevitable — but because they get hooked by them, like fish caught on a line. … In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, [the] ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to business success.”

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to be happy about or approve of a situation. Rather, acceptance gives you power to move forward in the most effective way possible instead of waging a futile battle against circumstances you can’t control. Our emotional response, particularly when it’s fighting something that’s not in our control, doesn’t provide the most productive behavior.

Accepting Your Failings and Those of Others

No employee or colleague is perfect. And the good news is that we are all capable of making changes and improvements. While feedback and development efforts can build strengths and address fatal flaws, the critical precursor to change by any leader is the acceptance that they need to change. One C-Suite leader I worked with had received years of feedback in annual reviews that she was not collaborative enough. When we reviewed this feedback together, she said, “Ok, I get it. This is how people are experiencing me. I don’t want it to be this way. What can I start doing?” When a leader can accept their own failings, they are freed up to pursue growth and explore new ways of leading to improve their effectiveness.

We must also accept others as they are, and make choices based on the real person, not who we wish they’d become. If you have someone on your team who, after an appropriate effort in training, coaching, and development, still doesn’t meet your expectations, there is a decision to be made. You can either accept that they have value to your business exactly as they are, or you can let them go. Where I see the most frustration and lack of productive effort is in constantly investing time, money, and energy into employees in the hopes they will turn in to different people or develop new skills when they’ve demonstrated over and over that neither are happening.

If you are like me, and are very results focused, you may feel that the characteristic of “acceptance” is too passive. It is anything but. Acceptance is often misunderstood as approval or being against change, but it is neither. Acceptance is about acknowledging the facts and letting go of the time, effort, and energy wasted in the fight against reality. Your reality may be that you are falling behind on revenue, a competitor has outflanked you with a new product, or that the effects of the pandemic are still hurting your business. Whatever it is you’re facing, you can’t employ your best skills to deal with it until you stop the wrangle against reality and accept what you’ve been handed, ready to change things for the better.

By Scott Edinger- Harvard Business Review (Oct-2021)

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