Several of the most famous quotes about leadership point to the paradox of embracing the challenge of the season and giving vision and hope in the midst of the challenges. Max Depree quipped: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is both a debtor and a servant.” In other words – define reality and then thank people when the vision is realized. Napoleon is credited with saying: “the role of the leader is to define reality and give hope.” Leaders must confront the current context with honesty while also giving hope for what the future can look like.
Those are great and helpful quotes, but leadership typically means continually toggling back and forth between those two actions. Defining reality is not a one-time action. Nor is giving hope and thanking the people we serve alongside.
Leading in a pandemic has highlighted this truth for me. Defining reality has not been just once – when the pandemic began in March. The grief surrounding the losses people are experiencing in this season is not something we can deal with once and then casually move past. We must live with the understanding of the heaviness around us, or we are being insensitive to those we love. At the same time, we must constantly give hope and remind people of the vision or we will leave them with the weight of the reality without any optimism for the future.
I recently filmed a video for a conference for ministry and marketplace in Kenya, with our amazing partners there. I was asked to speak about leading in uncertainty. We are not the only ones to live and lead in a crazy season. When David faced uncertainty, while hiding in a cave from Saul who wanted to kill him, he penned multiple Psalms. One was an honest complaint, a defining of reality (Psalm 142). He complained about the context, but not the Lord’s character and continued to believe the Lord to be good and generous. The other Psalm was filled with hope-filled declarations that the Lord was pulling off a greater purpose (Psalm 57). Same David and same situation but one Psalm filled with “defining reality” and one Psalm filled with “declaring hope.” David was filled with multiple emotions in the same context, and so are we. As we are, here are my suggestions to leaders as you constantly toggle back and forth between defining reality and giving hope.