Ignoring brutal facts is not a smart strategy for leaders.
Many are the pathologies of the human mind and one of the greatest of these is its capacity for self-deception, be it via blithe optimism, stark denial or sour cynicism.
Of these, optimism and denial are perhaps the deadliest. My father, whose flying career started in open-cockpit fabric biplanes, developed in combat in Spitfires and Hurricanes in World War II and ended in commanding the first supersonic jet squadron in the UK, drummed into his sons, via stories of wreck and recklessness, the dread consequences of the disease of ‘press-on-itis’.
Press-on-itis is best described as the tendency to push on into the face of mounting adversity, ignoring all evidence of imminent disaster in the belief that things will get better. It’s based on a credo that adrenalin, optimism and guts will save the day. And frankly they often did in war. But it’s hardly a practice for peacetime and commercial pilots. Or business people. As our businesses grow through the early years of entrepreneurship, more assets are managed, more people begin to depend on us for our services, or for employment to pay their kids’ school fees. More people trust us and we start to have bigger responsibilities and more to lose. To our urge for progress we must add discipline to conserve and guard what we have, to ensure it’s around tomorrow. We learn to add systems, new skills, new layers of thinking and new depth of management.
We have to make reality our friend. If there’s low cloud or thunderstorms, or if the currency’s down, if our leadership skills are lacking or our customers are losing faith in us, then no amount of wishful thinking will make that change. It is what it is.
There’s a saying in aviation that there are no things as useless as air above you, runway behind you and fuel in the bowser. Or in business the equivalent could be last months’ order pipeline, projects behind schedule and cash sitting with your customers.
Here’s a real-life example of not making reality your friend. There’s a truism that ‘in the absence of information, fantasy reigns’. Last week I worked with a company rebuilding its brand and reputation. It had had a product quality issue resulting in the recall of a batch of high-tech chemicals. The team, including the CEO, had worked intensively to correct the problem, following the strictest ethical and manufacturing standards. It was by any standard a quality piece of recovery and they congratulated themselves on the saving of their reputation. Only they hadn’t. Their customers still hated them. Why? Because they weren’t told of this recovery work, except in a brief memo. In the absence of information, their fantasy was that the company was unresponsive, cold and mechanistic – and their wallets followed their viewpoints.
In the team’s collective fantasy though, they were heroes. They were uncomprehending and dismissive of their ‘spoilt’ clients. But if their target had been not just solving the problem but on ensuring their customers fully understood that it’d been done, then their reputation may well have risen – and with it their revenue. For trust is earned, and there’s no better way to earn that trust than when you show how you respond when the chips are down. In fact, I knew one rather Machiavellian consultant in Europe who used to engineer crises so he could show how well he responded to them and so teach his clients to trust him!
Facing reality takes courage. Captains of planes and industry need strength of character. Not the thick-necked, but the clear-headed, kind – the kind that hears all views, is open to and acknowledges all evidence, masters its own desires and holds its own assumptions in wry scepticism. We need leaders who can stand up to pressure from peers, anxious passengers, clients or employees, and can hold their minds balanced in the face of mounting pressure, emotion and antagonism.
Jon Foster-Pedley is the Dean of Henley Business School, Africa, www.henleysa.ac.za. He is a former airline captain, and was a flying instructor and aerobatics pilot for 15 years as well as a senior executive in the European aerospace industry.
This article appeared in the Spetember 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.