Leadership Reality Check - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 284

284 Leadership Reality Check

Leadership Reality Check - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 284


Employee engagement. Team feedback. Peer review.

There are many tools for workplace reality checks. Three important questions for every leader are:

How do I see myself?

How do others see me?

How do I want to be seen?

This is the stuff of leadership reality check. Now some leaders (I’m thinking of you, Donald Trump) don’t much care about reality. The Donald is fully capable of living in his own reality. It’s entertaining. Time will tell if it’s effective in getting elected to the highest office in our country. There’s little doubt that Trump has a genuinely high opinion of himself. It’s equally clear that he’s not concerned in the least with those last 2 questions. He’s gonna roll the way he wants to roll and you’d just as well build a bridge and get over it. I confess I do rather enjoy his no concern for political correctness attitude.

Okay, you’re not Trump. I’m sure not. You’re probably concerned about what people think and say about you. That includes your boss or the people you have to answer to, and it’s especially true of your team. You likely want to know what both groups think about you.

Everybody loves a positive review. The board of directors delivers a new 3-year contract to the CEO with a 20% increase in pay and some additional stock options. It’s a big vote of confidence. How can he not feel great about himself?

He spends $60,000 to have a consulting firm do a study of how his executive team feels about working with and for him. It has guaranteed anonymity. It takes 6 months to complete. It includes 32 executives. There’s a mixed bag of results, but without any wild variations. These are professional people. Nobody is going to pull a Trump card and say what they really think. But the overall characterization of the report is best summed up in one word, “Meh.” It’s a really lukewarm result. Do you think the CEO cares much? After all, the board has expressed high confidence in him.

Nope. He only did the “study” to display how much he values what his team thinks of him. It’s window dressing. His reality check was delivered by the board. That alternate reality with his executive team is far less important. Sure, the fact that he runs a publicly traded $900M company with significant revenue and profit growth impacts all this. He’s not Trump, but he’s not you either. Or me.

Let’s get down to the real world where far more of us live. Even the City Manager of a multi-thousand personnel city government with an annual budget approaching $500M, or the CEO operating a privately held company with revenues exceeding $100M likely has a very different leadership. Or maybe I should say, they have a different leadership challenge. They live in a different reality.

Leadership is leadership. Or is it?

Generally speaking, it is. But specifically, it’s not. Generally speaking, leaders lead. They help their team perform better. They drive performance higher by setting expectations, providing resources, training, accountability and solving problems. The leader can do what others can’t. When the team runs into a roadblock, the leader can get them through. The specifics of how those things get done, that’s where it can all look very different. Part of it may be style and personality, but that’s true in all leadership. A bigger part of it is the HOW leaders accomplish their work. That may be where the reality check really comes into play.

Results, The Only Thing That Matters?

As long as people are performing to meet or exceed expectations, what do we care how leadership decides to roll? Why does it matter?

Every organization has goals – measurables they’re chasing. It’s the work product produced by all the people. Maybe it’s sales, profits, cost cutting, employee retention, promoting new leaders, marketshare, roads repaired, parks built, buildings inspected, houses cleaned, windows washed. It’s all the activities we engage in in our enterprises. From the most mundane stuff we do like basic accounting to the most thrilling stuff like managing the roster of an NFL team. It’s THE work. Does leadership matter if the work gets done…especially if the work gets done well?

This is important when we examine leadership reality because it speaks directly to the realities of leadership importance. It also speaks to the fact that leadership is more than a moment in time. You know that. We’re about mid-way through October 2015. Does your organization care what August’s performance was like? How about September? You guys aren’t still celebrating those sales records you set back in July 2015?

Past performance doesn’t matter. Nobody seems to care about it. You can build on it, use it to help create a high performing culture, but in the end – it’s over, done with. It won’t guarantee you future success. Performance standards are the unrelenting task master we all must serve.

Results aren’t the only thing that matters. How those results get delivered matter, too. Not some subjective “I don’t like the way he’s doing that” kind of way, but in a more substantial way. Maybe it’s best summed up in the phrase,

What got you here, won’t get you there.”

You’ve likely been part of a great performance one month. You’ve also likely been part of a monthly disaster. Sometimes conditions or circumstances happen that we could never predict or control. A natural disaster can happen. A flood, a tornado or any number of other things can hit with little or no notice and it can really disrupt our businesses. We manage these times as best we can. Some companies do well in such times, especially if disaster services is their business (or part of their business). The rest of us have to fight our way through.

But there are manmade disasters that can absolutely be avoided. Leadership disasters. That’s why you see changes often made among the professional sports teams. A week ago, after another embarrassing loss to the New York Jets in front of an international audience in London’s Wembley Stadium, the Miami Dolphins fired their head coach four games into this new NFL season. Joe Philbin, the fired head coach, won 1 game, but lost 3. That was enough for the owner of the Dolphins to say, “Enough.” Philbin never demonstrated success as a top leader – head coach. In 3 full seasons before this year, Philbin hadn’t had a winning record. But as an offensive coordinator for Green Bay he experienced success in that leadership role. What got you here, won’t get you there.

Let’s look at another coach, a college coach. A very successful college football coach. Nick Saban, the University of Alabama. Saban has won 3 national championships at Bama. He won another one back when he was the head coach of LSU. The man knows how to win. In the college game a team has to be almost perfect to even get a shot at playing in the championship game. Unless the competition has a loss, it can be almost impossible to play for a championship with a single loss. Alabama already has one loss. Has Saban lost the touch?

I don’t know, but I doubt it. Unlike Philbin who has not yet proven the ability to be the top dog, Saban is an experienced, winning top dog. He has performed consistently throughout his college coaching career. I’ve read plenty about him and know he’s a man who believes in the process. Saban doesn’t resist shaking things up, doing things in new ways, being innovative and finding buttons to push with players and staff. In short, Saban appears adept at doing what must be done to continue to elevate performance. He appears to have a solid grip on reality. He knows the players, his staff — and maybe most of all, he seems to know himself. He has never relied on past performance to propel him to present or future performances. You shouldn’t either.

Adapting. Responding to situations and opportunities. Reacting. Preparing. Planning. It’s all part of the leadership reality check.

And it’s not about being optimistic, or pessimistic. It’s not about being overly critical, or super positive. It’s about how things really are. With YOU, the leader. With your people.

Nick Saban can view himself any way he wants, but if his staff and players see him in a way that puts his leadership in peril, then he can take his positive attitude and shove off. People will stop responding to his leadership in a way that will bring about victories. But that hasn’t happened. Will it? Not if Saban can help it and he seems very intent on preventing that. That’s the kind of leader he has proven to be.

Style, Substance And How

I’m fanatical about process and workflow. It’s one reason that I podcast the way I do, using the broadcast model. I prep and I prep some more. I don’t usually just open the mic and hit record, talking off the top of my head. Most of the time I’ve spent a few weeks thinking about an episode. I may write some thoughts down every day for two weeks, or I may sit down and spend a few hours thinking about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. But the work goes in on the front end. Then, when I record an episode I spend very little time getting things published. I prefer to do the work upfront. Other podcasters like to roll in a more casual way upfront, then put in tons of work on the backend editing. I constructed my studio and my workflow to fit how I preferred to podcast. It’s more than HOW. It also impacts my style and substance!

The same goes for leaders in an organization. Every leader has a unique personality that often drives the style of the leader. How leaders communicate, their preferences, what they hate, what they like – all those things can differ wildly among leaders. But they don’t make a leader good or bad. Saban is an all business kind of a guy. Across the country, an ex-college coach named Pete Carroll is a Super Bowl winning coach of the NFL Seattle Seahawks. Carroll is known for having a lot of fun and being lose. But he was a winner at USC when he was a college head coach. He’s been a winning head coach for a long time. Two contrasting styles, both capable of producing winning football teams.

Style, substance and how address a central quality necessary in effective leaders – adaptable. Some will say that great leaders need to be good actors. I don’t mind that characterization.

The reality check required of every leader demands that we know and fully understand the current circumstances. But we have to adjust to them. Adapt. Overcome. That means we must sometimes behave or act differently.


Sometimes our people are just tired. We’ve pushed, prodded and poked. They’ve performed well and we sense performance slipping. The reality check is necessary so we properly understand WHY. Why the sudden slip? Are they losing focus? If so, why? Are they not working as hard as before? Why?

Shame on the leader who neglects the reality check of this question because it speaks to how the leader should respond. Remember, the team is tired. Maybe even exhausted. I realize performance still has to be high. I’m not suggesting your business or organization take a month off – that’s not possible. I’m suggesting that your response, as the leader, will determine what you do to help your people elevate their performance. It’s not about lowering standards, or tolerating some slackness in the organization. It’s about finding a way to win knowing that the troops may be running out of steam.

You can holler, scream and micromanage them, but that won’t give them the energy they need. You’ll just run them down below empty. You may even create a stream of low performing months from which your leadership won’t recover (see coach Philbin). Instead, your reality check is that the people are tired. They’re still very willing to do the work. These same people won big last month. But they gave it all they had to produce last month’s results. You notice they’ve lost the spring in their step. Energy seems low.

Going off on them isn’t what they need. Instead, your reality check leads you to know precisely what you must do. Encourage, inspire and cheerlead. The team is still accountable for a solid performance. Sooner than later you decide you’re not going to let another day go by without addressing the needs of the team. You gather them together for a team huddle. You begin by telling them how proud you are of their performance last month. You review the current month-to-date performance, showing them what the current pace will produce, including how short you’ll come in meeting the month’s targets. They can tell you’re not going to relax the goals. Instead, you tell them you understand they’re tired and you want their help in how to maneuver through this current challenge so they don’t fall further behind.

It’s a town hall kind of a meeting, but you’ve held these before. Your team is easily engaged in open dialogue and interaction because it’s part of your normal leadership style. They acknowledge they’re tired, but also acknowledge their belief that they can overcome that to achieve the goals for the month. Before your eyes you see their energy elevated as together, in front of you, they’re working to remedy the problem of their lower energy. Somebody opens up their laptop and a spreadsheet measuring the month-to-date performance. She say, “At this rate, we’re going fall 22% short of our target.” Somebody asks her, “What does our daily performance need to be to make up our lost ground?” She answers after a few key strokes in her spreadsheet. You write that number on the whiteboard.

Instead of commandeering the room, you say nothing, instead opting to just nudge the conversation forward if needed. But right, this team isn’t needing you. They’re finding renewed energy in tackling this problem – the problem of their own short fall this month. The energy in the room is evident. They’re rallying. It’s exactly what they need. After 10 minutes they seem to have forgotten how tired they were. They’ve got a new focus – chasing the goal. They have a new challenge – refusal to let their exhaustion beat them. It’s a rallying point for the entire group.

They suggest some innovative things they can do to make up the ground they’ve lost. You encourage them by telling them they’re only 4 days into the month with plenty of time to recover. And you remind them that it’s how the month ends that determines success, not how it begins. “What can I do to help?” you ask. Some of them ask you to give them a new daily dashboard so they can know multiple times a day how they’re doing. Their normal dashboard isn’t updated quite that often, but you agree that you’ll make that happen for them. It shows their dedication to stay on top of their performance. Your leadership reality check proved that the team was tired, and that they needed you to spark them – not reprimand them. Now, they’re owning their performance and they’re energized to make it happen.

Within 36 hours they’re performing at a rate that will give them a performance 5% above their target. You know that may not be sustainable, but you keep on cheerleading every time a new update hits the dashboard. Nobody is slacking. Everybody is on board. Your leadership reality check has given you the opportunity to make the team even stronger than before. All because you dared ask, “Why is this happening?” And you also spent time asking what you could do to remedy it.

It’s Not YOU. It’s THEM.

Effective leaders don’t make it about themselves. They make it about their people. It’s the biggest part of the leadership reality check. It’s also why too many leaders fail to get a good grip on their people. They’re always chasing that elusive question of how their people feel, or what they’re thinking, or anything else about their organization. They’re not spending enough time with and among their people.

If that leader who held that town hall meeting didn’t really know these people, do you think he’d have handled that situation like he did? Of course not. He’d likely have dealt with these people in the most heavy handed way possible. He’d have pushed, coerced and instilled as much fear as possible thinking that would help. And he’d have been terribly wrong, potentially breaking down a group of people otherwise capable of high performance. He’d have made it all about his leadership and his perceived strength in making people perform.

Effective leaders don’t make people do things. They help people get things done. Better.

That’s the reality of it. The sooner you understand that it’s about THEM, not YOU – the sooner you’ll be on the road to becoming a more effective leader.

Every group needs leadership. Leadership that is willing and capable of looking reality in the face, staring it down and refusing to blink. Leadership willing to look in the mirror and realize what must done under the circumstances. Leadership capable of seeing the present distress or opportunity and knowing what service may be most needed by the team.

At the end of the month the team achieved the target, plus 7% more. And they were exhausted at day 5. But thanks to an effective leader who could see the future first, they were energized. They rose to the occasion because their leader first believed in them. He believed in them first. That made them believe in themselves. His vision of the future spurred them to find a new kick in their energy. He didn’t make the month happen. They did. He helped, but it was never about him. It was only about what he could do to serve them.


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