I recently watched a video of David Copperfield, the famous illusionist, making the Statue of Liberty vanish in front of a group of spectators. It weighs 450,000 pounds and stands 305 feet tall, so moving it is not an easy task. To accomplish this trick, Copperfield set up a stage at night for the viewing audience to sit on. The stage was framed in front by pillars which held a curtain secured at ground level and lifted up to block their view of the statue. A circle of lights at ground level illuminated it, and its presence was tracked on a radar screen visible to all. He presented the statue to the audience, then raised the curtain for a few moments. When the curtain dropped again, search lights beamed through where the statue should have stood, showing that nothing was there. It had vanished, only leaving the ground level lights to show its footprint. After raising the curtain again for a few moments, Copperfield then dropped it to reveal the statue, back in place.
How did he do it? During the period of time that the curtain was raised, the audience viewing platform and pillars rotated slowly to the right, so that when the curtain dropped, the statue was behind a pillar. Blaring music throughout the entire show distracted the spectators, and the radar display was fake.
Copperfield’s spectacular show, performed in 1983, was full of entertainment and flair. The audience was amazed, even in the midst of the fact the sculpture couldn’t simply disappear. They couldn’t figure out how it was done, thus they bought into the reality of the illusion, that was listed by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2014 as the largest disappearance ever performed by a magician.
We’re often spectators to other illusions in our world, not necessarily executed by traditional magicians. Such illusions may be manifested in the form of major initiatives taken on by leaders and their teams to accomplish admirable goals. But they lose sight of the organizational realities.
When these illusions involve addressing significant business challenges (like statues that weigh 450,000 pounds), they are not easily or quickly resolved or attained. For example, innovative new technologies need to be thoroughly tested and validated to ensure clarity of results. Business strategies, mergers and acquisitions may promise great gain but the realities of the market may negatively impact the ability to accomplish it. And when leaders appear capable, but their business expertise, leadership competencies, or emotional intelligence are not aligned with the needs of their roles, it will be manifested in their performance.
Illusions can admittedly be more pleasant and soothing to the conscious mind, but they are temporal. They draw our focus from the truth of the challenges we face, but ultimately we must address those issues.
Conversely, realistic leaders establish a solid foundation from which they and their teams can construct sound solutions. Here are seven fundamentals to being a realistic leader.
- Be transparent in your communications with stakeholders, to establish an environment of trust. While it’s necessary to maintain appropriate confidentiality, your work can’t be so secret that no one fully understands what’s going on.
- Be truthful about the current facts and challenges of the business. Accept bad news in the same way that you embrace good news.
- Be open to ideas, feedback and information from others on possible solutions. Encourage your teams to collaborate and share data, even if that material differs from your current strategy.
- Be strategic about your decisions and the necessary actions to ensure success. Be willing to take responsible risks.
- Be pragmatic to address issues sensibly based on what’s actually happening, and not over rely on unproven theory. Look for practical options and evaluate each one carefully.
- Be optimistic about the future and potential to win. Communicate a compelling vision of what can be, and build momentum to achieve it.
- Be performance based so that your results speak louder than your persona. Recognize the importance of your behaviors to drive needed change and to model proper ethics. Properly leverage your strengths and surround yourself with others who possess complementary capabilities.
Being realistic does not mean accepting mediocrity or minimizing grand plans for the future. It does mean clearly acknowledging the present challenges that must be addressed to support those future plans. Realistic leaders dream of ambitious possibilities, but then they get to work understanding the problems and issues in the present, and develop a pathway forward. They are not seduced by illusions of grandeur, but are influenced by thoughtful opportunities. Be a realistic leader.