Reality-Based Leadership: Ditch the Drama, Restore Sanity to the Workplace, and Turn Excuses Into Results

Cy Wakeman

Reviewed by Monica Regan, Senior editor, High Tide Press

A Passage to India is a fictional story rooted in historical facts. In it, E.M. Forster brilliantly demonstrates how culture, circumstance and personality drive us as we attempt to interpret reality and solve problems. In the early 1900s, the British leaders carrying out the occupation of India are a like-minded group. However, since their situation is dysfunctional, each person develops a unique style of denial and obfuscation. Officials in the military, courts and local government are dutifully carrying out the king’s orders thousands of miles from London. While their behaviors reflect an educated, restrained culture, they are brutal all the same. For their part, the Indian citizens and leaders display reactionary behaviors that are unique to their culture but similar to oppressed people everywhere.

When a beloved Indian doctor is falsely accused of violence against a British woman, prejudice and blame spread like a bad rash across the city. Fanning the flames are religious and ethnic differences. Fortunately, the accused is vindicated with the help of a small handful of people who are skilled at embracing reality. The moral of the story is that clear thinking can come from any sector of society—education, law, business, religion, etc.—and any spiritual belief system.

So, when I picked up Cy Wakeman’s book, Reality-Based Leadership (2010, Wiley, $27.95), I was intrigued by her assertion that “Reality-Based Leaders are part of an inner peace movement.” Depending on one’s perspective, this audacious statement may spark a number of different thoughts–an intriguing idea; a mixing of apples and oranges; a case of marketing hubris; and so on. Wakeman makes an impressive attempt to gain support for this statement. The beauty of her idea, like most grand ideas, is that it emanates from a basic, human truth. No leader can make sensible decisions in the moment, or articulate a vision for the future, with an unquiet mind.

Unfortunately, we know that people attempt to do so every day. But, why? How do we identify that urge in ourselves and stop before we act? Wakeman has loads of suggestions that appear, from this observer’s viewpoint, to come from a depth of life experience. She weaves bits of storytelling from her management and consulting work into a whole lot of straight talk.

She suggests that we embrace our own inner storyteller and use it to stay on course. “If you are feeling deflated at the end of your day–or even sometimes at the beginning–I guarantee you that the stories you are telling yourself are like little holes in your tires letting all the air out.” On the other hand, if you tell yourself at the end of each day that you have had an impact and you dealt with reality all day, you will leave work energized.”

Sound familiar? This approach promotes the use of self-talk, cognitive restructuring and the like to tame the inner demons that hold us back from crafting and implementing great plans. Wakeman describes many, specific behaviors that most of us don’t enjoy looking at closely within ourselves. Yes, our happiness doesn’t come from a lack of stress but rather from how we view our particular stressors. No, we can’t blame others for our poor decision-making. It just feels that way sometimes.

Fortunately, Wakeman’s skills in understanding and working with human behavior are evident. And, her writing paints vivid and attractive pictures. (Wouldn’t you rather fill out a form called Measuring Your Office Freak-Out Factor than, say, Current Morale Index Measurement Matrix?) Also, the book offers many exercises for identifying and working with present realities. For example, she suggests you list your concerns as “risks” and label them low, medium or high. This type of parallel thinking process merges the current, emotional element (concern) with the strategic element (possible courses of action) to better predict worse, better and best outcomes.

In another exercise called “management assimilation,” she offers steps for clarifying roles and procedures in a department or team that has a new manager. It is designed to identify current realities, and thus help people avoid negative emotions like worry, anger and disappointment.

Today, we have significant social and biological science to back up the timeless idea that positive results follow reality-based thinking. While man has long employed myth to stir others to action, history is also peppered with individuals who stick to the facts, regardless of how uncomfortable they make others. Often, these opposing souls have been at odds with those around them, resulting, at times, in their imprisonment or execution.

Today’s business, government and nonprofit leaders do not face such harsh consequences. Rather, they face an onslaught of negativity in the public discourse that sometimes makes myth and negativity very difficult to resist. Especially during the recent economic downturn, talking about reality to one’s constituencies can feel like stepping into the crossfire. More than ever, “inner peace-making” is essential. Meditating, praying, vacationing, and reading a book like Reality-Based Leadership might all fall in this category.

Realities are continually forming, disintegrating and re-forming. We can either fight them or work to remain aware of them and their impact on our work. In a nutshell, it’s study reality, apply it, move forward, repeat. Wakeman offers several useful principles for doing this, including:

  • “Refuse to argue with reality.”
  • “Work with the willing.”
  • “Depersonalize feedback–whatever the source.”
  • “Ask others, ‘How can I help?’ instead of judging and blaming.”
  • “Value action over opinion.”

Occasionally, Wakeman makes tiresome claims. For instance, she states that reality-based leadership “blows current theories of engagement out of the water.” She also suggests that a leader should play favorites and stop trying to keep people happy. In other words, work with the willing. A counterintuitive suggestion perhaps, but to many readers this is not a new idea. Overall, however, her book is loaded with keen observations and valuable guidance for leaders.

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