Hope, Reality and Leadership

Among all the things a leader deals with, great leaders manage the tension between hope and reality.  Hope always focuses on what’s possible.  Reality tends to look at what’s actual (which often isn’t all that pretty).  The two can almost seem like enemies, but neither is far from the top of a strong leader’s mind.

I think most leaders instinctively drift toward or or the other, but not both.  I personally lean toward hope, focusing on what’s possible.  Other leaders will gravitate toward reality, determined to deal with the brutal facts. But great leadership understands you can never be far from either.  You need to embrace both hope and reality, and the best leaders have learned to do this daily.

I’ve seen more than a few leaders only really engage either hope or reality.  The hope dealers only talk about the future and even get defensive when anyone asks a numbers question or begins to ask questions about implementation.  I’ve seen leaders who prefer reality get annoyed when someone in the room began to dream.  They can’t look past the balance sheet, the obstacles or the opponents.

To only embrace one of the two factors is to miss out.  Leaders who only deal in hope and sideline reality:

  • Eventually stop resonating with most people because the vision of the future seems so divorced from the present.
  • Rarely if ever are able to bring ‘numbers and data’ people on board.  You need them to execute any plan.
  • Set themselves up for disillusionment – because rarely does the future play out as optimistically as we think it should.
  • Relegate much of their vision to being just a dream.

By contrast, leaders who only embrace reality and ignore hope:

  • Eventually stop resonating with futurists and early majority change agents who are attracted to what’s next and what could be.
  • Fail to gather much of a crowd because they don’t develop a vision of a preferred future that can rally people around a common cause.
  • Set themselves up for potential cynicism and disillusionment.  Seldom is the current reality better than a preferred future.
  • Find it hard to make progress – because only talking about ‘what is’ can easily lead back to ‘what used to be’.  In the absence of a preferred future, the preferred past looks like a better option.

If you’re a leader who drifts toward hope, one of the best things you can do is to begin to engage  reality. It will amaze your critics and the people who believe your head is stuck in the clouds.  Ironically, what you fear might be your undoing will enable you to rally a broader crowd.

If you tend to be on the reality side, embrace hope.  I know, you think it’s unrealistic and until you deal with problem X nothing is going happen.  But there will always be a problem X.  And if all you’re doing is explaining to people what’s wrong, why would anyone follow you?

As a leader, do you tend toward hope or reality?  How do they compete for your time and attention as a leader? How have you learned to hold hope and reality in tension?

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.