The first part of Max DePree’s quote outlines this idea incredibly well: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
Let’s take that in for a moment. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. I have to admit when I first read Max DePree’s book, Leadership is an Art, I did not fully absorb or embrace the power of this concept. Today, however, this has become very important. Leading today, more than ever before, is about the moments. The moments we have interacting with our team members as we all go about our business. And it is in those moments that we have the greatest opportunity to define reality.
For the past 25 years, I’ve been coming alongside others to help their businesses become more successful, and, during this time, I’ve noticed some trends. One of the predominate trends we have today is an “oldie but a goodie”: when a perceived problem exists, it must be solved or removed before any progress can take place.
How many of our team members are stuck in this type of thinking? This is why we see individuals needing to be directed, solely working in a linear plane, or requiring immediate answers to the latest question that popped into their head. The discomfort of the problem suggests something is wrong and must be fixed so comfort can be restored. All with the implication that comfort implies progress. Not true!
The responsibility we have to define reality, and, in so doing, re-define the reality of those we lead has never been greater. Our people are our most valuable asset, and each one has tremendous potential to become so much more. Together we can create incredible value for those we serve. We cannot allow these incredibly self-limiting thoughts and beliefs keep our people from accomplishing the great work of business!
I’ll never forget one of my first lessons as a new sales manager. Our company was facing a difficult time. Doubt and worry flooded my thoughts. I went to my General Manager, wringing my hands in distress. I knocked on his door, entered, and poured out my tale of woe. I finished my expression with “what do you think we should do?“ My boss stood up from behind his desk, looked me straight in the eye, and asked “what do I think we should do? What do you think we should do? That’s why I gave you the job!“ It was exactly the right question at exactly the right moment, and it forced me to dig deep and find my own answers.
Tapping into the potential of our people is never easy, and most of the time it creates discomfort. But isn’t that the message we want to send? We believe in them, we have high expectations of them, and we know they can do it! Many individuals today are asking for more training. The world is full of books, videos, and classrooms. The real training, however, happens every day, hundreds of times a day, as we go about doing good business! These “everyday” moments are exactly the type of training our people need!
What does it actually mean to “define reality” for our people in these “teachable moments”? Let’s understand this in practical terms:
- We must view life from the perspective of faith, not fear. Why? Because the promise of the future cannot overcome the legacy of the past. We are meant to accomplish significant, meaningful, and worthy achievements. We must re-frame our moments using this perspective.
- Stop viewing the problems and obstacles we face as problems and obstacles! They are challenges, they are teachable moments, and at the heart of each one is the seed of greater opportunity. In order to experience this, we must allow ourselves to live through these challenges! (This is the primary reason we hire people to work in our companies!)
- We must take every moment–every interaction, every email, every text–as an opportunity not only to move the ship forward, but also to train our people! We need to teach them how to define reality. This will allow us, individually and collectively, to have the power to overcome our challenges, resulting in our greater vision!
So, when a team member comes to you seeking guidance, consider these responses:
How can we re-frame this “problem” as a “challenge”?
Is this the exact challenge you need to overcome in order for this project to move forward?
Try answering these questions from my perspective of: what do I think you should do?
There are many great questions we can ask our people that support our belief in them, and help them take ownership of their role. I believe more than anything that our people want to go about their work with a quiet confidence, committed to others, all the while knowing they are a part of something meaningful and significant. It’s absolutely true when we have faith and choose to operate from this perspective.