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Reality Checks for Leaders

I recently met with a senior executive of a large organization – to explore a coaching relationship. After meeting at the reception desk, she led me through a maze of turns, doors, and up stairways to reach her office, deep in the bowels of the company. There, she painted a picture of an organization steeped in its own thinking, mired in an organizational swamp. And she was as caught in the thick marsh as anyone. I realized then the symbolism of the maze-like journey to her office: How can she develop or maintain an objective, clear-headed, vision while operating so deeply embedded in the organism?
That experience led to these questions:

• How does a leader avoid the trap of parochialism – the disease of limited vision that comes from spending too much time in the same place, with the same people and the same issues day after day?
• What do you do to stimulate and refresh your vision – not only for your business, but for your life in general?
• How do you test that vision against reality?
• How do you validate it for freshness and honesty?
• Where is the mirror in which you find the right questions and the honest answers?

When I was president of the local Pepsi-Cola franchise, I would take a week every year to get out of my suit, don a uniform and ride the delivery and service trucks. I learned so much of what was actually occurring in the business from the front line people. Daily walks to watch the bottling line and chats with mechanics or forklift operators helped me avoid corporate office tunnel vision.

Even these strategies, though, kept my nose in the same business! What steps do you take to ensure that your lens is not too narrow, that you keep a perspective on what you do and where that fits in the pattern of the world? Here are some possibilities:

• Volunteer to engage in something unique, worthwhile and risky for you. My regular participation in an intensive rehabilitation group at Groveland prison has often yielded me tremendous insight into what is truly of value in life. Over the years I’ve had about thirty executives accompany me for the experience.
• Spend time reading biographies of famous leaders. Try David McCullough’s best sellers “Truman” or “John Adams”.
• Listen to radio talk show hosts whose opinions are very different from your own. Practice stretching your mind and managing your judgmental reactivity.
• Spend time in cultures that are different from your own. My time in some of the poorest sections of the state of Chiappas, Mexico, and a week in a remote village on the north coast of Haiti are unforgettable for their impact on my views of life.
• Meet regularly with others who are dedicated to living life to the fullest. A group of men I joined five years ago serves this purpose for me. We act as objective mirrors and sounding boards for each other.
• Meet with others whose lives display a quiet courage. I have lunch a few times a year with a dear woman who has cerebral palsy and has managed to maintain an inspirational spirit of acceptance and gratitude for a life that would have most of us cursing God.
• Have your spouse or significant other critique a letter or plan you’re considering. Better yet, I’ll ask my adult children to critique articles like this to insure that I’m not just blowing smoke!
• Consult with a coach or professional therapist to help you monitor your responses to situations. I meet about once a month with a psychiatric practitioner (therapist) and another consultant who help me navigate through situations I’m encountering with clients – partly about strategies to work most effectively with clients, and partly about managing myself in those sensitive situations!

Experiences like these can break us out of the narrow confines of “normal” life, and help us to view that life in a broader perspective. I’ve often come away with a fresh view of myself, my business or a client situation. Helpful metaphors and analogies emerge that yield elegant solutions for the thorniest of situations. Some of my most pivotal life decisions have come on the heels of such experiences.

These reality checks, then, help us to reclaim what is genuinely important in life, and to see with a fresh set of eyes.

What are your reality checks? How do you avoid the myopia of “same old, same old”, how do you hit the “Refresh” button? What helps you to avoid tunnel vision, to generate creativity, and to check your place on the path? What has helped you achieve these ends in the past?

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