The real heroism of leadership

According to Ronald Heifetz

The real heroism of leadership involves having the courage to face reality — and helping the people around you to face reality. It’s no accident that the word “vision” refers to our capacity to see. Of course, in business, vision has come to mean something abstract or even inspirational. But the quality of any vision depends on its accuracy, not just on its appeal or on how imaginative it is.

Mustering the courage to interrogate reality is a central function of a leader. And that requires the courage to face three realities at once. First, what values do we stand for — and are there gaps between those values and how we actually behave? Second, what are the skills and talents of our company — and are there gaps between those resources and what the market demands? Third, what opportunities does the future hold — and are there gaps between those opportunities and our ability to capitalize on them?

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Leaders don’t answer those questions themselves. That’s the old definition of leadership: The leader has the answers — the vision — and everything else is a sales job to persuade people to sign up for it. Leaders certainly provide direction. But that often means posing well-structured questions, rather than offering definitive answers. Imagine the differences in behavior between leaders who operate with the idea that “leadership means influencing the organization to follow the leader’s vision” and those who operate with the idea that “leadership means influencing the organization to face its problems and to live into its opportunities.” That second idea — mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges — is what defines the new job of the leader.

According to Howard F. Stein and Seth Allcorn, “The unreality principle and deregulation: a psychocultural exploration”, The Journal of Psychohistory 38 (1) Summer 2010, pp. 27-48.

Most recently Chris Hedges (2009) has written Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. He writes that “A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. … And we are dying now. … Those who cling to fantasy in times of despair and turmoil inevitably turn to demagogues and charlatans to entertain and reassure them. …”


American society’s very adaptation to reality and future adaptability are in question. John Ralston Saul writes that “Equilibrium is dependent on our recognition of reality, which is the acceptance of permanent psychic discomfort. And the acceptance of psychic discomfort is the acceptance of consciousness” … The opposite … lies in the “refusal to recognize the reality of society” … An imaginary, virtually hallucinated, alternate reality, “replaces” the reality of society. Hatred of thinking itself and of emotions becomes the foundation of the inability to “learn from experience” … .

In a similar vein Gordon Lawrence writes that psychosis in general is “the process whereby humans defend themselves from understanding the meaning and significance of reality, because they regard such knowledge as painful … To do this they use aspects of their mental functioning to destroy, in various degrees, the very process of thinking that would put them in touch with reality” … . Not only do individuals do this, but organizations and whole cultures as well. The flight from distressing experience grounded in reality into unreality comes to be preferred, even required, over recognition and acceptance of reality. (We owe the insights in this paragraph to Dr. Burkard Sievers …).

Unreality may gain expression if not hegemony in culturual ideology, religious dogma, political propaganda, and even economic policy. It may be propounded by leaders who are “true believers” or manipulative opportunists.

The first chapter in Robert J. Ringer’s Million Dollar Habits is “The Reality Habit”. In the subsection “A World of Delusions”, he writes

To paraphrase author Robert DeRopp, man inhabits a world of delusions, which obscures reality and creates dangers for himself and others. He rarely understands what he is doing or why he is doing it. His actions and beliefs indicate that he lives in a state of waking dreams.

The most obvious motivation for one person to delude another is personal gain. In some cases, the delusion involves deceit (clandestine in nature); in others, honest overzealousness (innocent in nature). But regardless of the intent, the consequences are the same: you are deluded into believing something that isn’t true. You are persuaded to ignore reality and accept an untruth in its place.

In addition to being deluded by others, there is also the problem of self-delusion. The results of this destructive practice can be devastating, ranging from mental illness to financial failure to war. Therefore, anyone who is serious about achieving meaningful financial results — or meaningful results of any kind — must develop the habit of carefully examining his own premises and beliefs to make certain he is not feeding himself a diet sprinkled too heavily with the spice of self-delusion.


An old marketing axiom states: If you want to do well, sell people what they need; if you want to get rich, sell people what they want. How? Simple. Just invite the prospect to do something realistic like “Come to Marlboro Country.”


Try to sell people what they need, and you’re liable to end up in bankruptcy court.

On the other hand, your success is very much dependent on your commitment to develop the habit of not straying too far from reality, so you don’t become a victim of such delusions.



  1. According to Jim Collins, “Leadership does not begin with vision. It begins with getting people to confront the brutal facts and to act on the implications. One of the primary ways to demotivate people is to ignore the brutal facts of reality.”


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