The real heroism of leadership

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According to Ronald Heifetz

The real heroism of leadership involves having the courage to face reality — and helping the people around you to face reality. It’s no accident that the word “vision” refers to our capacity to see. Of course, in business, vision has come to mean something abstract or even inspirational. But the quality of any vision depends on its accuracy, not just on its appeal or on how imaginative it is.

Mustering the courage to interrogate reality is a central function of a leader. And that requires the courage to face three realities at once. First, what values do we stand for — and are there gaps between those values and how we actually behave? Second, what are the skills and talents of our company — and are there gaps between those resources and what the market demands? Third, what opportunities does the future hold — and are there gaps between those opportunities and our ability to capitalize on them?

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Leaders don’t answer those questions themselves. That’s the old definition of leadership: The leader has the answers — the vision — and everything else is a sales job to persuade people to sign up for it. Leaders certainly provide direction. But that often means posing well-structured questions, rather than offering definitive answers. Imagine the differences in behavior between leaders who operate with the idea that “leadership means influencing the organization to follow the leader’s vision” and those who operate with the idea that “leadership means influencing the organization to face its problems and to live into its opportunities.” That second idea — mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges — is what defines the new job of the leader.

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