Organisation : Lessons In Authentic Leadership - Embracing Reality

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. - Dan is the principal of Syntient and carries a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from the University of Kansas. His consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. He is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations.


Dan's consulting client base is diverse, including industrial, retail, financial and service companies. He uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability. E-mail: and visit


Effective leadership is all about leading one’s followers to the goal.  That may seem self-evident, but too many business leaders spend their position power telling and bossing but doing very little leading.  The fact of the matter is that an effective leader is necessary for a group of people engaged in a complex enterprise to be successful.  The path to success may be fraught with barriers, hazards and unexpected events, and it is the work of the leader to guide the enterprise through those obstacles.  If the enterprise stumbles, the leader, in some way, has failed.  Because the stakes of modern business are so high, much attention has been given to understanding the necessary and sufficient abilities of a business leader with varied and often confusing results.  Understanding the crucial ingredients of successful leadership is important for coaching current leaders and developing future leadership talent.


A trait is an aspect of personality that endures over time and across settings. One crucial character trait that has received scant attention has been the willingness and the ability of the person in a leadership role to embrace reality.  In a business setting this trait surfaces in several ways. Leaders who possess this trait are people who continuously evolve their understanding of a changing environment by being open to new information, no matter how frightening or personally distasteful it may be.  It is demonstrated when leaders strive to be accurate in their assessments of the capabilities of their organizations in action, as they currently are and as they could be in the future.  It shows in leaders who continue to adapt strategies to evolving circumstances.  It can be seen in leaders who are able to abandon cherished ways of acting when new responses are required.  Finally, since it is seldom enough that the leader alone possesses clear vision, it means that he or she insists that the organization, as a whole, develops the maturity to embrace what is.


History is full of examples of people in leadership roles who have and have not been able to embrace reality and, in turn, generate astonishing results or abject failures.  Think of Franklin Roosevelt leading the United States through the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Think of Mahatma Gandhi, leading India to free herself of the yoke of colonialism.  One of the most telling contrasts is apparent by considering the leadership of Churchill and Hitler during World War II.  In the darkest of circumstances, Churchill embraced painful realities and literally grew psychologically in the face of adversity, while Hitler, unable to do the same embarked on a frantic denial of truths that ultimately lead to defeat and sealed his doom.


Leaders at every level need to have the willingness and the capacity to embrace reality if they are to guide their constituencies to success.  One doesn’t have to be a figure of historical proportions to wrestle with the seductive power of a self-serving view of one’s circumstances.  Human nature predisposes all of us to make and hold assumptions; to develop a point of view held strongly enough to be called a “mindset,” and to want what is easy to do to be sufficient for success.  An effective business leader must be able to rise above these instincts, see circumstances for what they are, and do what must be done regardless of preference or style.


Endurance Athlete, Leader and Realist:


In order to humanize this lesson, this article profiles a businessman who has forged a highly successful company based upon his unflinching commitment to deal with what is rather than wishing that reality would somehow be different.  He is Jose Diaz, the co-founder and president of the Herbal Worldwide Holdings Corporation.   Jose Diaz has worked with a partner to build their company and its major product, Fattache, a dietary supplement for weight control.  While his partner is focused on the legal aspects of the business and takes a lead role in negotiations, Jose is responsible for the operational end of the company and he draws heavily upon the lifelong experience of an endurance athlete to shape his approach.


Jose Diaz has spent his adolescence and much of his adult life competing at a high amateur level in bicycle racing.  He has competed around the world and his competitive experience has shaped his thinking.  Although he is not a scientist, he has studied nutrition as he searched for legal, ethical ways to enhance his performance.  Based upon his passion and experience he developed a dietary approach to enhance metabolism and burn fat.  His research led to his development of his company’s product line.  Once he had a product he still needed to build a company.  The lessons that he learned as an endurance athlete have shaped the strategy and tactics he has used to build his business.


The Working Knowledge Of An Endurance Athlete:


There are four working assumptions that Jose learned as an endurance athlete that have served him well as a business leader.

  1. You can fool your mind but you can’t fool your body.

  2. You must evolve your strategy to apply those capabilities in calculated ways
  3. Events will necessitate continual changes and adjustments 

You can fool your mind but you can’t fool your body:


Preparing to compete in endurance sports requires a lifestyle commitment.  Training can be grueling, tedious and exhausting.  You always eat to compete, not to indulge your appetites.  If you cut your workouts short, sneak some forbidden food, or lose your focus, no one may see you, you might have a great excuse or a clever rationalization, but your body knows.  It always responds to the choices you make rather than to your expressed intentions.  What separates the top competitors from the rest of the field is a commitment to the integrity of their training.   Many business leaders expect that their plans and intentions should be quickly realized by their employees.  Little effort is spent to hone the team members’ abilities.  The ineffective leader expects that his or her intentions should simply generate competitive success.


“You have only the focus, strength and stamina that you have painstakingly built, no more and no less.  Your can think of your mind and body as your production facilities.  No matter how you have dreamed of being a winner, in the heat of competition, you are only as good as your preparation has made you,” says Jose.


In the business world, it is easy for a leader to lose his or her discipline.  It is even easier in a complex endeavor to let the organization lose its discipline.  At the end of the day, however, what you produce is only as good as how well you have prepared.  When a business doesn’t perform many leaders become angry, they holler at their people, they may ridicule or abuse them.  Jose’s reaction to this statement was to say, “That would be like me losing a race and hollering at my legs or my lungs rather than learning how to better tend to my preparation.  Losing teaches lessons to the competitor with the courage to learn them.”


“This is also the thinking that has gone into the development of Fattache.  We have funded medical research out of our own pockets.  We did it to learn how the body works, not to cook up a ‘finding’ that says what we had hoped to hear.  We have six patents on our products.  We took the time and did the preparation, intellectually and scientifically to create a product that can perform the way that we want against any and all competition.”


“This thinking has also affected how we produce and manufacture our products.  Our products are continuously and rigorously tested as they are produced.  We want to ensure that the form and substance of our performance are up to the test.  There are no shortcuts that we could take that wouldn’t affect our ability to perform credibly in the competition of the marketplace.”


“Finally, in all of our marketing, we promise realistic results.  We tell our customers to expect modest results that require effort to sustain.  We are proud to be unlike our competitors, who often promise instant and miraculous results from their products.  Their plan is to make a quick killing from a public wanting to fool itself.  They use advertising to seduce new customers as earlier users become discouraged and abandon them.  We want customers for life.  To achieve that level of loyalty we must tell the truth.”


Success requires focused, considered work to build and sustain your capabilities:


Any endurance athlete is constantly measuring the results of his efforts and working to improve his capabilities.  The athlete must be dedicated and powerfully focused upon the goal.  These athletes measure themselves against yesterday’s performance but are always aware of the performance statistics of the champions.  One must consider both elements when preparing to compete.  They analyze their performance and adjust their training to create improvements.  There are many strategies and techniques used by people trying to gain an edge, but they are always tested against the realities of the competition, the course and the clock. 


“Your strength, stamina and conditioning are either developing or decaying.  Take a break and you pay.  Yet, overdoing it can create mental or physical problems as well.  One must always be reading the numbers and learning the lessons,” says Jose.


Many business people compare themselves against last quarter’s or last year’s numbers but they are ignorant as to the current performance of their competitors.  They miss a vital part of the formula for success.  Or, they confuse abuse with dedication.  Their people are overtaxed and fragmented in their focus.  They view the path to success as doing more with less.  An endurance athlete has to be focused on the essentials, but they need the equipment, nutrition, and support team that is good enough to fuel the desired performance.


Many business leaders want their organizations to jump from a new idea to powerful execution without doing the work required to build the new muscles.  To continue with the sports analogy, the similar situation would be for the owner or managing director to believe that since s/he has good athletes on the team, they should be able to adjust effortlessly.  They should just figure it out, as a group, without missing a beat.  In a business setting, the boss doesn’t feel that workers have the time to practice, rehearse and play together as a team.  So the typical pattern is that they tell people what to do and when the team/business falls short they blame the workers rather than their strategy.


Jose commented that, “I don’t want to spend money foolishly.  We run a global company with only four full-time employees; our offices are modest, yet we continue to fund medical research and travel the globe to ensure our success.  I wouldn’t travel by boat because the ticket might be cheaper any more than I would pass up protein as an athlete in order to save on my food bills.  You have to know what you need to do to sustain peak performance and expend what the course requires.  You’ve always got to be sensible, but business people who try to succeed by investing less than the competition requires will always fail.”


Jose believes, “Current performance is focused on the ultimate goal, winning in competition.  That goal serves as the reference point for evaluating performance.  It isn’t enough to find a routine and fall into a rut.  You have to challenge your body in unexpected ways or it adapts.  You are constantly making calculated adjustments with both the next race and the whole racing season in mind.  I have found that the same lessons hold true for running a global business.  We can’t simply replicate what works in Europe and expect that it will work in South America.  We have to amass the capabilities to do what it takes to win in each arena.  We also have to recognize that entering a new market is different than sustaining performance in that market over time.  As I said, we don’t want to generate passing interest in our products; we want to build the sustained relationships that lead to the best results.  That’s why it is consistent performance, delivering what we promise, that is so important.”


An evolving strategy applies those capabilities in calculated ways:


An endurance athlete’s strategy is formed during training and away from competition.  Once the contest begins the one certainty is that unexpected events will occur.  Savvy competitors assess what you are trying to do and work to defeat your efforts.  No one mindlessly works their plan without putting their results at risk.  While many events are predictable there are always ones that aren’t.  Simply measuring yourself against your strategy creates such a narrow focus that one is always vulnerable to surprises.


“As we’ve have risen to the dominate position in our markets in several areas of the world, our competitors have responded in a variety of ways.  They’ve used some dirty tactics.  They’ve spread misinformation, and they’ve altered the way that they do business in the face of our competition. 


In turn we’ve responded to the challenges in keeping with our long-term goals.  We have fought the misinformation tactics in court and won.  They attacked our scientific credibility and we had to respond, as expensive and distracting as that was.  At the same time, when competitors have raised the level of their hype and made extravagant claims for their products, we’ve stayed the course.  We will only offer the promise of realistic results when our products are used appropriately.  We even offer workout guides with our dietary supplements to underscore for the consumer the need for them to understand how their bodies work.


My interest in this whole field began in my competitive days when I was looking for legal, legitimate ways to support my body working at its peak.  I never minded being defeated by someone who had outworked me but it galled me to play by the rules and have someone cheat to gain an unfair advantage.  I developed my products as a result of the research that I first did for myself.  That’s why I can believe so passionately in what I am selling.  I know what I am talking about.  I am not simply selling something that I know how to make and convincing people to try it.  I am making available that which has been competition proven and delivered results that made a real difference for me.”


Many businesses fall into the rut of listening to their production people or their sales force exclusively and losing sight of what provides the results that the customer really wants.  They chase a temporary sales advantage or produce what they can presently produce even as the market shifts away from them.  They become so wedded to their current capabilities that they become predominantly self-focused in their decision-making.  If you listen to their sales meetings you can hear them, reps and managers, berating the customers for not buying more product.  After all, the sales force has honed their pitch to present their products in ways that make sense to themselves!  Others continue to represent their products as having an advantage that they used to have when their competition has caught up to them or even leap-frogged their offerings.  It takes a realist to recognize that yesterday’s edge has dulled with time. 


Events will necessitate changes and adjustments


To be a winner, an endurance athlete knows that he or she must not just perform as they have envisioned; they must be prepared to adjust.  Like jazz musicians improvising within the chords, the competitor must know how to deliberately shift gears and make adjustments.  Many business leaders fail in not ensuring that their people know how to adapt within the plan as well as they know how to work the plan.  Every strategic plan or yearly business plan that sits on the shelf, gathering dust, bears silent testimony to this reality.


“We operate with such a small staff because we use distributors, contract manufactures and brokers.  In this way, we maintain the ability to be maximally flexible.  We are always ready to evolve and adapt to better tools or methodologies.”  Jose has said that although forming a new partnership with a distributor is a calculated risk, he lets the results speak for themselves.  He will support business allies but he constantly monitors what they deliver, not what they promise.  “They results are clear.  They are what they are.  If you don’t deliver, we move on,” he says. 


“I trust my instincts when getting to know a new ally.  There is no foolproof way to make such decisions.   We are loyal to people who are performing.  We’ll do our best to help them be successful. But they know going into the deal that we are watching.  Performance is everything.”


If I own my own plants then I am committed to the equipment and the technology.  My capital is tied up in assets with limited capabilities and life spans.  By being humble, we don’t need to be big to play on the world stage.  We value flexibility over size.  Our money continues to go into research and product development.  That is our business.  That’s what we know.  I am happy to let others do what they do best.”


Dealing With The World As It Is:


Jose has shared the perspective of a man who has brought an unyielding sense of pragmatism to his business.  His perspective was honed on mountain roads from Europe to South America.  The harsh realities of endurance competition focused his mind.  While he competed as an individual performer, he learned lessons that have proven to be vital to leadership effectiveness.  Embrace reality, anything else starts the journey to failure.  Work to build the capabilities required to perform against the best or stay home.  Strategies and tactics have to evolve as conditions unfold and to become full of one’s self means that one closes his mind to the impact of changing conditions.  Finally, when you’ve done the work, reach for the stars; always push to find the limits of your potential.  These lessons in authentic leadership flow from his willingness to embrace rather than resist reality.


© Dan Elash

E-mail: and visit

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