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Healthy Leaders Name Reality

As one of my favorite people says, "Leaders frame reality." They refuse to indulge in soft language about a fanciful future with no connection to current reality. In fact, they bring hope to life when they hold the honest truth in tension with future possibilities.

the squirrel

I am certain you know the joke. A Sunday School teacher holds up a picture of a little grey furry animal with a bushy tail and asks her students, “who can tell me what this is?”

One brave little dude raises his hand and says, “well it looks a lot like a squirrel, but since this is Sunday School, it must be Jesus.”

The thing is, people do that all the time. Rather than naming things as they really, they talk about some polite socially preferred notion. Sometimes the answer is just a squirrel, plain and simple.

Squirrel-like talk happens everywhere. Nervous that the truth might feel brutal, folks opt to talk about something gray and fuzzy. We are especially bad at this in the church. I know a pastor who was forced out of leadership through a power play by two of his elders. He wanted to call it a disagreement, a sign from God that it was time to move on. All I could think of was that we should call it what it was--a coup.

We speak of tragic dilemmas with platitudes. We act as if it is our responsibility to protect God’s reputation. We rarely call a squirrel a squirrel. Sometimes our spiritual lens coatings are so thick, we can barely see our hand in front of our faces.

You hear the well-oiled habit of talking in spiritually-coated words all the time in the church. Life can be a mess and yet people say, “we are really being tested, but God is good.“ Someone’s business if failing, but we say “the Lord provides.“ People are leaving the church because of a major conflict, but we say, “God is pruning us.”

I’m sorry, but the real brutality comes through the ugliness and inauthenticity of candy-coated optimism. When polite euphemisms and socially constrained answers rule the day, the very people our avoidance seeks to help become isolated and trapped in their own pain. When leaders create a culture that avoids simple straight-forward talk about reality, people learn the unwritten rule that they shouldn't talk plainly about their own reality either.

Right now, this week in June 2020, there are two major subjects which will test the ability of leaders to speak directly about reality. One is how to address the conversation about the national cry for an end to racial injustice and systemic racism. The other test is more subtle, but just as pervasive; How will we address the plans for emergence from three months of Covid-19 shut-down while acknowledging the trauma and fear and economic fallout many people are reeling from.

In both cases it could be tempting to gloss over the personal hardships people have faced, chalk it up to some broad brush terms like "trying times," or focus so strongly on plans for the future that pain in the present is minimized. This is a moment for leaders to give language and framework to reality even as they chart the pathway into a new future.

Do a little assessment:

  • How often do you feel pressured to be the cheerleader trying to convince people to perk up or be hopeful?

  • Do you find yourself tempted to "soften the blow" by using abstract language, more generalized terms, or spiritual platitudes?

  • Would you describe your circumstances the same way if you were speaking to a group of hardened soldiers or no-nonsense CEO’s?

If any of these ring true, it’s time for a shift.

It’s time to intentionally cultivate the habit of calling things just what they are.

Let me offer two suggestions for building simple truth telling communication skills.

  1. Drop the word, “but” from your communication. Anytime you use the word but as the conjunction between two statements, it serves to negate the first statement. For example: ”This has been a brutal quarter for us financially, BUT, here are our plans for the next quarter.” The use of “but” minimizes the first phrase. Instead, train yourself to identify both statements as important truths. Or, just use the word “and” instead. “And“ puts both phrases on equal footing.

  2. Ask someone you trust to review your communication about plans, reports about current affairs, or anything of a difficult nature. Ask them to look specifically at your choice of words. Are you using straight forward language about reality or are you trying to soften the blow in any way?

Leaders frame reality by naming the truth of how things really are. They don't artificially inflame urgency by being melodramatic nor do they downplay the truth. They name what is and then they connect the pathway forward to that honest picture of reality. The ability to hold this tension in a non-anxious way will engender trust in your organization. After all, when it's a squirrel, everyone knows it. So, don't be afraid to call it out.

1 Comment

Steve Hopkins
Steve Hopkins
Jun 08, 2020

These three questions sent me into my "cave" to look around this afternoon, very helpful! I remember a mentor telling me once, 'quit trying to think up a great question, just keep asking questions' ...a good reminder of that advice today.

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