Good Leaders Know You Can’t Fight Reality

Acceptance is often confused with approval or being against change. However, it is neither. Acceptance means acknowledging the facts, and letting go all the effort and time wasted fighting against reality. You may find yourself in a situation where you are losing revenue, your competitor is offering a better product, or the effects of the pandemic still affecting your business. No matter what the situation, you won't be able to use your best skills to solve it until you stop fighting against reality. Accept the facts and make the effort to improve the situation. Leaders should be able to accept results, accept circumstances and accept the mistakes of others.
Acceptance of reality is one the most valuable and misunderstood skills of a leader. This concept has been used for centuries in psychology and philosophy, and can be applied to drive change. Carl Jung said, "We cannot change anything unless we accept it." Condemnation doesn't liberate; it oppresses. However, I don't see how leaders can use acceptance enough to achieve better results.

Acceptance might not seem like an important skill. This is especially true when we hear so many stories about leaders who seem to defy reality. Apple's Steve Jobs is the most famous example. His reputation for inspiring people to achieve the impossible has been legendary. According to his colleagues, Jobs distorted the scale of his employees so that they believed an impossible task could be achieved. This was called the Reality Distortion Field. This strength of will is admirable, but leaders lacking the counterweight of accepting reality often overestimate its value. Jack Welch, another well-known business leader, said: Face reality as it stands, not as it was, or as you wish.

Most of the bad leadership behaviors I have seen stem from an inability to accept the limitations of what is happening or the circumstances as they exist. Leaders who fail to deal with reality at the moment can often be blamed for unnecessarily harsh behavior. I was watching a CEO of a public company shout, "I will not accept this forecast!" at the president of one his divisions. It was laced with angry profanity. The CEO and the division president worked together to revise the revenue projections higher until the CEO approved the forecast for the next quarter. Although the numbers appeared better on paper they did not reflect any real progress made with customers or actual business reality.

Now, fast forward to the quarter's end. The CEO was furious that the revenue numbers did not match his revised forecast. Ironically, the actual results were in line with the original forecast. The CEO decided to abruptly initiate a round of layoffs, and reduce important investments within the company in order to make the business more efficient with customers. Although the numbers told the truth from the beginning, the CEO refused to accept or act on a reality that he did not like. This caused a flurry of problems for customers and employees that had a negative impact on the future value of this business.

The situation could have turned out differently. The CEO and division president could have worked together to create contingency plans to restore the desired growth, as well as reduce expenses. The CEOs' inability to accept the realities of the situation prevented any meaningful discussion or possibility for change.

Every day, a version of this disconnect occurs in many companies. This is the classic example of a leader complaining about a situation, result, or person and insisting that reality is different. It is amazing to see how much time, effort, energy, and money leaders waste arguing about reality. Accepting reality as it is takes courage. Only then can you and the team make positive changes.

These are the three types of acceptance leaders should be focusing on:

Accepting the Results

Sometimes the worst happens, sometimes it is just bad. These can be a failed strategy or poor financial performance, job loss, or any other setback. Although leaders can be a bit sarcastic and ranty, they won't be able to accept the reality of what happened.

You don't have to be happy with the outcome. This is about not wishing for things to be different, acting unprofessionally or arguing about what the outcome of the results will be. You may have to accept and examine your part in the outcome. Leaders need to remember that accepting or fighting against a result will not change it. It doesn't make you stronger to change the future.

Accepting Circumstances

You might have missed important deadlines or had your return-to office schedule pushed back by the Delta variant. Or maybe you're over budget and must make some sacrifices. Leaders often find themselves in situations beyond their control. Susan David, author Emotional Agility, explains that leaders often face circumstances beyond their control. She suggests that you give up control of everything you don't have control over and allow your emotions to react without reacting to every thought or feeling. It's not that leaders have unfavorable thoughts or feelings, but rather because they become entangled by them. The ability to control one's thoughts and feelings is crucial to business success in today's complex, rapidly-changing knowledge economy.

This doesn't mean that you should be happy or agree with a situation. Acceptance gives you the ability to move forward and not fight against circumstances that you cannot control. Even when we are fighting against something outside of our control, our emotional responses don't produce the most productive behavior.

Accepting your failings and those of others

There is no perfect employee or colleague. The good news is that everyone can make improvements and changes. Although feedback and development can help build strengths and fix fatal flaws in leaders, it is crucial that they accept the need for change. My experience with a C-Suite leader was that she had been receiving too much feedback from her annual reviews. She said that she understood the feedback after we had analyzed it together. This is how I feel. This is not how I want it to be. What can I do? Leaders can admit to their failures and are free to seek growth and find new ways to lead to increase their effectiveness.

Acceptance of others is key. We should also be able to accept them as they are and make decisions based on their true self, not what we want them to become. You must make a decision if someone in your team fails to meet your expectations after putting in the effort through training, coaching and development. Either you accept their value and let them go. The most frustrating thing about investing in employees is the insistence on them learning new skills or turning in other people. This causes frustration and a lack of productivity.

If you're like me and you are results-oriented, acceptance may seem too passive. It is not passive. It is not approval. Acceptance can be misunderstood to mean being against change or approval. Acceptance means acknowledging the facts, and letting go all the effort and time wasted fighting against reality. You may find yourself in a situation where you are losing revenue, your competitor is offering a better product, or the effects of the pandemic still affecting your business. It doesn't matter what it is, you wont be able to use your best skills to solve it until you stop fighting against reality, accept what has been given to you, and then work hard to make things better.