"You have to at some point be honest about what’s happening in the real world as opposed to what you would like to have happen."
-Newt Gingrich, 2012 Republican presidential candidate, announcing his intention to drop out of the race, April 25
One of the classic debt mistakes Americans make is "convincing themselves that any number of wants, wishes, luxuries and conveniences are actually needs."
-John Ninfo, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, April 14
It’s easy to pick on failed political candidates or people seeking bankruptcy. But if I told you that many top-level leaders base their personal and business decisions on fantasies, you would probably protest. After all, we’re talking about smart, successful people.
Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines "fantasy": Deluding oneself by imagining things that are impossible or improbable; a whimsical supposition resting on no solid grounds, a hallucination.
Leaders, like all of us, want to believe the best about themselves and their companies. While understandable, this often produces decisions that bypass reality.
Four fantasies head the parade of unfounded beliefs commonly infecting leadership:
The family fantasy
The mantra "We’re like family" can often be heard from the mouths of those who lead closely held businesses, religious congregations and social movements. It’s an emotionally stirring phrase that promotes loyalty and sometimes an extraordinary degree of caretaking.
It’s also a lie.
Companies are not families, do not function like families and cannot replicate families without dire consequences. If you doubt this, ask yourself:
Is profit a necessity for family survival? When is the last time you fired a family member? Is there any equivalent to your spouse in your company? Would you dare to attempt a performance review on family members?
Treating any company like a family-for example, offering unconditional acceptance and love, promising "till death us do part" commitment or expecting 24/7 availability-raises questions about a leader’s priorities. It also unknowingly promotes emotional drama through overly personalized business decisions, entitlement ("you owe me") and a sentimental togetherness that discourages autonomous thinking, the opposite of what a thriving business requires for innovation.
Every leader should understand the difference between a work agreement and a life commitment.
The omniscience fantasy
Many leaders fall into the trap of fantasizing that they must know all and be all.
The omniscience fantasy propels a leader into old-style physician-like behavior-diagnosing problems, dispensing solutions like aspirin and advising patients on what they need to do. Leaders captured by this delusion automatically focus on telling instead of asking questions and on helping rather than challenging others to think more deeply.
This not only keeps employees (and children in a leader’s family) helpless and dependent, but it sentences leaders to chronic stress. By taking on responsibilities that belong to others, know-all leaders carry double their weight all the time. No one can do this for very long before something gives-producing physical or emotional symptoms, family problems or a tendency to distance from important relationships.
The approval fantasy
Giving credence to the commonly accepted notion that a leader must be liked and respected usually takes that leader’s focus off course.
The goal of leadership is to figure out how to move a group forward, not to win everyone’s approval.
I know this sounds harsh to many aspiring leaders, but the best leaders are almost never universally liked, at least until they die. When leaders make being loved or revered their goal, they have fully entered a state of fantasy.
In the same way that a parent’s neediness for the love of her child predictably compromises that child’s autonomy, a leader’s need for approval weakens that leader’s courage and decisiveness. He begins to look over his shoulder to see who’s nodding or finger-wagging instead of attending to his best thinking. The same individuals the leader seeks to please end up disadvantaged by his emotional neediness.
All approval is fueled by an unrealistic wish for comfort. Every week, I witness leaders who won’t make important decisions because they are not comfortable doing so. They usually tell me their discomfort comes from not wanting to hurt or cause discomfort in others. In reality, it’s their own comfort addiction that drives the approval fantasy.
In contrast, sober leaders are more focused on progress than comfort and more influenced by the realities of what works and doesn’t work than by whether others like them or not.
The immortality fantasy
Underlying the above delusions, and more influential than all, is the ultimate fantasy-a leader’s belief that he cannot be stopped.
We leaders receive daily messages about how critical we are to the functioning of our organizations. That recognition comes from our responsibilities and titles, our contacts and the influence we wield within and outside our companies.
All of this provokes self-importance. Too easily, we can slip into believing we are different, more powerful or even indispensable.
It would be helpful if leaders could maintain a sense of humility without having to suffer a tragedy or other adversity, which often is necessary to bring us back to earth.
An alternative is the simple recognition that opportunities always involve limitations and that a single lifetime never leaves enough room for everything we want to see, experience or accomplish. For wise leaders, the certainty of their own mortality helps them balance the urgency of a full and meaningful life with the acceptance of limits.
Fantasies are perilous not only because they take leaders down false paths but because rose-colored options always feel better. Wanting to feel good fuels the engines of delusion.
The way out of fantasy is reality, a path that involves deprogramming one’s delusions, reflecting on what is most important and deepening one’s perspective.
Many leaders remain perspective-poor because they never learn how to slow down, settle their minds and consider the bigger questions of human existence. For them, it usually makes sense to find an outside resource to aid the head-clearing process.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].
6/1/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].