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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reality-Based Leadership

By: Cy Wakeman

ISBN: 978-0-470-61350-4

Publisher: Jossey Bass

This review was first published on on March 8, 2012

Book Description

Recent polls show that 71 percent of workers think about quitting their jobs every day. That number would be shocking -- if people actually were quitting. Worse, they go to work, punching time clocks and collecting paychecks, while completely checked out emotionally.In Reality-Based Leadership, Cy Wakeman reveals how to be the kind of leader who changes the way people think about and perceive their circumstances-one who deals with the facts, clarifying roles, giving clear and direct feedback, and insisting that everyone do the same, without drama or defensiveness. Filled with dynamic examples, innovative tools, and diagnostic tests, this book shows you how to become a Reality-Based Leader, revealing how to:
  • Uncover destructive thought patterns with yourself and others.
  • Diffuse drama and lead the person in front of you.
  • Stop managing and start leading, empowering others to focus on facts and think for themselves.


Leadership accountability is one of the most underplayed themes in sustainability today. This shows up when heads of companies receive massive bonuses that are not directly tied to corporate performance. It shows up in the way employee performance is evaluated – using inputs (what people do) rather than outcomes (what results they deliver). It shows up in the fact that 31 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs (and 17 percent are actively disengaged). It shows up in the fact that "71 percent of workers think about quitting their jobs every day." It shows up in the fact that far too many underperforming people remain far too long in organizations in which they are not positively contributing (and in some cases, they are actually causing damage).

Sustainable Reality-Based Leadership
Wakeman’s book was, perhaps, not written for the sustainability bookshelves. It was written for the Business Leadership, Management and Human Resources sections of business literature. However, its relevance for sustainability is compelling. Business sustainability requires leaders who deliver sustainable results through people. A business cannot be sustainable when only a third of the workforce is engaged or two thirds are thinking about how to get out. Here are some of the issues Wakeman lists as holding organizations back through lack of effective leadership feedback:
  • Tenured employees whose skills are not current – leaders must raise the bar for performance and decide who makes the grade and who doesn’t.
  • Employees at the top of their pay scale who no longer deliver top value – this happens when "leaders over-reward and under-coach employees over the course of their careers".
  • Righteous top performers – "great employees whose performance is compromised by their righteousness and judgment of others."
Stop Managing, Start Leading

Effectively addressing these issues requires executives to stop managing and start leading. First of all, Wakeman writes, they have to "stop arguing with reality." This means relating to the facts of different situations at work, rather than the stories we tell ourselves or making judgments. An example might be when a coworker receives a promotion – you tell yourself that it's not fair, you should have received the promotion, you work harder than the coworker, you deserve it etc. This line of thought is judgmental and reflects "entitlement" thinking.

Instead, if "you embraced reality, you would note that a promotion occurred and do the appropriate thing in such a situation: congratulate your coworker, offer to help and resolve to learn how to deliver what the company values. You'd be high on professionalism, low on drama and investing in better relationships and mutual support in the future…You are arguing with reality whenever you judge your situation in terms of right or wrong instead of fearlessly confronting what is."

Reduce the Drama

By the same token, instead of trying to keep employees happy, leaders should focus on helping them understand reality, while empowering them to build their capabilities to deal with all situations that arise. If you want to evaluate the behavior of the people you lead, you can take Wakeman's Freak-Out Factor test, which will show you how your organization or team measures up in terms of level of drama in the workplace.

"Empowerment without Accountability is Chaos"

Restoring sanity to the workplace is about the adoption of leadership behaviors that drive accountability. The problem with employee engagement surveys, writes Cy Wakeman, is that they don't measure accountability. They are simply "invitations for people to critique their reality". All you end up with is a list of "what would need to change in order for your staff to grace you with their performance". However, one can never create a perfect working environment which meets everybody's aspirations. Engagement surveys are setting leadership up for failure. Instead, Cy Wakeman recommends two questions for employees:
  1. What is the one thing you need to be more productive in your work?
  2. What are the three things you are willing to do to get it?
Such an approach eliminates the "victim factor" and builds accountability, while enabling leaders to understand what they need to do to truly empower their teams.

Work with the Willing

In leadership, playing favorites is "fair game," Wakeman observes. "Too many leaders I work with have surrendered to the idea of mediocrity in order to never, ever offend anyone. Some leaders are so concerned with treating everyone the same that they are hesitant to give honest feedback". Leaders should spend most of their time coaching the employees who are delivering the best results. In reality, leaders spend "on average 80 extra hours per year thinking about and working with a single person who's in a state of chronic resistance". These people won't change and worse, the best employees will be dragged down by a negative office culture. The idea is to "compensate value, not effort" and give your focus to the employees who deliver. " You will have problem employees for as long as you continue to hire them and put up with them".

Everybody's Opinion Counts. Not.

Wakeman says your workplace is not a democracy. Ninety percent of the people in any organization at any given time are not key decision makers. Leaders need to set clear expectations and goals and focus the energy of their teams on working towards the desired results, rather than wasting hours complaining about why certain decisions are made. Offering constructive feedback is positive. Fighting against decisions that are not yours or your team's to make is futile.

Reality–Based Leadership contains practical, mindset-changing and entertaining advice, anecdotes, tools, and recommendations that anyone who leads people in organizations should read. Just as sustainability relies upon a realistic assessment of business impacts on people, society and the environment and the formulation of appropriate strategies to improve these impacts, so leaders must confront the realities of how they behave in organizations, how accountable they are and how they leverage reality-based tools to ensure their sustainable contribution.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via   on Twitter or via my website

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