How Leaders Define Reality for Organizations

“The role of the leader is to define reality and give hope.”––Napoleon

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”––Max Depree

I gave a presentation a few days ago to someone who may join our team.

My presentation included organization KPIs, a SWOT analysis, a “map” of industry competitors, an org chart, a description of changes underway, some company values, our company logo and brand, and a few ways that this guy could fit into the organization.

Given the scope of the presentation, choosing a title was tricky. It seemed like I was covering Organizational Everything. So I simply titled it “Organization Name, September 2020.”

Later I realized that the title should have been “Reality for Organization Name, September 2020.” Because the purpose of the presentation was to define reality for its audience.

I had heard the above quote from Max Depree a few months ago. I think I agreed with it because I mapped it to some famous examples of reality-benders:

Readers of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs remember his “Reality Distortion Field.”

A driving force in American politics is Donald Trump’s “Fake News.” (And what is the opposite of fake?)

But even agreeing with Depree’s quote, I didn’t understand the tools leaders used to define reality. Was it as simple as possessing Jobs-level charisma or repeating “fake news,” over and over again?

Before I list the tools, I want to introduce a 2×2 from Will McWhinney’s Paths of Change. This idea should help to explicate how the outlined tools take effect.

SAGE Books - Creating Paths of Change: Managing Issues and Resolving  Problems in Organizations

The 2×2 describes four archetypal realities. I’m not going to dive deep here. McWhiney offers that readers can locate their “reality” somewhere on this 2×2. Here is an imperfect shorthand for what each quadrant represents:

Unitary: Reality is set by divinity. (Theocrats.)

Sensory: Reality is set by the observed. (Engineers.)

Mythic: Reality is set by the self. (New-ageists.)

Social: Reality is set by us. (Socialist antagonists of Ayn Rand novels.)

If you’re reading this, you may have a sense of where you sit on the 2×2. And that’s part of the point of this segue: Each individual in an audience brings with him a different reality––a different point on the 2×2. The leader must bring each team member’s point together.

Tools for Reality Convergence

Now to circle back to my presentation and map its features onto McWhinney’s 2×2. The mapping is imperfect, but I’ve done my best.

1. Key Performance Indicators “KPIs” [Sensory/Social]

Every organization has a set of numbers that tell an at-a-glance story about how the business is doing relative to the past. This is as sensory as it gets.

That said, picking which numbers to include as organizational KPIs is a critical political metagame and an expression of the organization’s [Social] values.

2. Organizational Values [Social]

The leader says: “These are the things that are important to us.” The audience agrees or is disengaged.

3. Maps [Sensory]

Organizations use various maps to understand where they are in their competitive landscapes.

In the most obvious sense a map may show headquarters and satellite offices. A map could also display organizational capabilities relative to competitors’. A Wardley map could tell an organization “where” its technological development is.

I can also imagine an organization using a [Mythic] map: Imagine leadership describing an organization as a Hobbit that has finally arrived in Mordor.

4. Symbols [Mythic]

One organization I work with uses the Chinese character Wang to define reality. The literal translation of Wang is “king,” but the etymology of the character contains more nuance: In short, an effective Wang unites heaven and earth.

Another example of an effective symbol: A wall was the divisive symbol of the 2016 Trump campaign.

5. Stories and Metaphors [Mythic]

Images of Organization describes how organizations can be described as machines, brains, organisms, and more. Each metaphor carries its own capabilities and limitations. A leader can set reality by picking a beneficial metaphor.

6. Beliefs [Unitary]

One organization I work with has a statement of its beliefs. (Though statement “We believe” might be more [Social] than [Unitary].)

I’ve heard of a faith-based organization whose mission is to spread the love of Jesus. How’s that for a [Unitary] corporate belief?

7. Possibilities [???]

Finally we’ve arrived at Napoleon’s hope. I’m not really sure in which reality “Possibilities” belong. Perhaps in all of them.

The important thing is that if a leader has adequately defined reality, both leader and audience will recognize the same Possibilities.

This is one of the main benefits of defining reality: When team members recognize and value the same possibilities, conflict disappears. When this happens we sometimes say teams are aligned or that they share an organizational culture.

(It strikes me that “alignment” and “culture” are euphemisms. Heads might explode if corporate America began to speak in terms of alternate realities.)


The list above obviously isn’t comprehensive. In fact, you could argue that everything in every presentation ever made is aimed at “defining reality.”

But my hypothesis is that to effectively define reality, a leader should incorporate elements from as many of McWhinney’s realities as possible.

The presentation I gave the other day was really strong. I don’t think I recognized why it was strong. Today I see unifying ideas from the [Sensory], [Social], and [Mythic] realities.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: