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Published on December 28, 2017

A leader doesn’t live in this reality

Almost once a month someone in my team says something like ”you are not living in this reality” or “you don’t understand what we really do”. I agree on the first claim but not at all on the second one.

I believe it would be a bad idea for a leader to live in "this reality”. A leader has to live in the future and lead from there. A team whose job is to operate things they way they always have doesn’t really need a leader. They can do it all by themselves. A leader is useful only if the doing and the thinking of the team have to change.

Leadership means the ability to imagine what the world is going to be like, to aspire to occupy a certain position in that future, to plan how to get there, and to inspire your people to get there.

Because leadership is imagination, aspiration, planning, and inspriation, it may sometimes go wrong. The world does not evolve the way you imagined, your aspirations turn out to be worth less than you thought, your plans fail or your people don’t follow you. This is where the “reality” kicks in. Although you live in the future you need to know the reality and act upon it.

A great leader is both a bold pioneer and a meticulous planner. The leader leads from the future but with the information about the current reality. You must be able to imagine and move fearlessly towards your vision - or dream. But you also must carefully monitor your current reality to ensure that you really are moving to the right direction and that it still makes sense. Such monitoring is not possible without a plan. If there is no plan any situation is an exception.

The image of the future state only exists between the ears of the leader. It is a tough call to make people see the future the same way and inspire them to get there. All leaders face similar although less spectacular challenges as Henry Ford or Steve Jobs. There may be nothing visible in the current reality that would support the future the leader is trying to communicate. In fact, people tend to believe that the current reality is permanent and behave accordingly.

It is well known that people start moving towards the future state only if they see the future appealing and the current state painful. Change at personal level always happens through a very practical cycle: what we talk about and what we do affects our thinking, what we think about affects our attitudes and our attitudes affect what we talk and what we do. It is next to impossible for a leader to affect this personal cycle directly.  This is probably why great leaders tend to communicate "why we do" more than "what we do" and "what we believe in" more than "what we are" or "what we will become".

The job of a leader is to find ways to bring the future in his imagination and the reality in the people's everyday life closer to each other.

Leaders don't live in the reality because they must lead from the future.