Leadership Embraces Reality

March 29, 2012

I just finished reading Harry G. Frankfurt’s little book On Truth, the follow-up to his book On Bullshit. I’m hesitant to admit that I enjoyed Frankfurt’s bullshit more than his truth; nevertheless, it’s still a great book.

Frankfurt’s main point is that because the truth is grounded in objective reality, we need to care about the truth. Frankfurt does a good job of explaining why the perspective that truth has no objective reality is not merely bullshit, but a lie. His thoughts on reality are very important:

We learn we are separate beings in the world, distinct from what is other than ourselves, by coming up against obstacles to the fulfillment of our intentions – that is, by running into opposition to the implementation of our will. When certain aspects of our experience fail to submit to our wishes, when they are on the contrary unyielding and even hostile to our interests, it then becomes clear to us that they are not part of ourselves. We recognize that they are not under our direct and immediate control; instead, it becomes apparent that they are independent of us. That is the origin of our concept of reality, which is essentially a concept of what limits us, of what we cannot alter or control by the mere movement of our will. (pp. 98-99)

What we want but can’t have defines us more than what we want and have. Transformational character is forged in the cauldron of weakness. An understanding of the reality of the limits of our limitations is more important to a healthy self-identity than an obdurate declaration of strength.

Leadership embraces reality as essential to the process of assuming responsibility for the choice to engage with others to pursue substantive, purposeful change. Authentic leadership mandates a corporate commitment to a war against lies.

The most irreducibly bad thing about lies is that they contrive to interfere with, and to impair, our natural effort to apprehend the real state of affairs. They are designed to prevent us from being in touch with what is really going on. In telling his lie, the liar tries to mislead us into believing the facts are other than they actually are. He tries to impose his will on us….Insofar as he succeeds in this, we acquire a view of the world that has its source in his imagination rather than being directly and reliably grounded in the relevant facts. (pp. 76-77).

The reality is the biggest dragon we will ever have to slay is the one we see when we look in the mirror. If we can muster the courage to continually confront our own limitations, then we can encourage others to do the same and work with us to enable the emergence of exceptional organizations that produce meaningful results.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (2)

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  1. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    One of my mottoes is, “The truth is always usable.”

    Wise leaders know that all feedback is great, and negative feedback is golden. They seek it out. They examine it closely and thoroughly, like the CSI team looking for DNA. Foolish leaders recoil from any truth that threatens their self-image or career luster. They therefore fail to mine the truth for all it’s worth. In my opinion, ignoring or denying truth is the worst kind of slow-dynamite sabotage.

    If leaders choose to believe lies rather than the truth, they doom their organization to a distorted view of reality. The short-term effect may be minimal, but the long-term effect will be cumulative, hard to correct, and felt at every layer of the organization. For one thing, before long all the truth-tellers in the organization are driven out, and yes-men and scammers are the only ones left. Talk about a bleak future.

    Thanks for the great post, Bret, and for all the truth-telling you do on this site. – – Beth

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Beth. I think one of the biggest challenge for us all as organizational citizens is not so much telling lies (most of us don’t) but tolerating the lies told by others. thanks for sharing! Bret