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How to Fulfill Leadership’s First Responsibility

three states of an organization

Fear hopes monsters go away. Courage grabs them by the throat.

“The first responsibility of a leader
is to define reality.” Max De Pree

The movie, Apollo 13, made the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem,” famous. “Houston, we have a “challenge,” doesn’t cut it. Courage doesn’t play games with language.

Courageous leaders point out problems.

Defining reality is boldly describing what you see. It’s easy to sprinkle fairy dust on reality. You don’t want to point out problems, for example, because they reflect poorly on your leadership. So, you pretend they’re challenges and opportunities. Maybe, if you close your eyes long enough, they’ll go away.

Courageous leaders don’t pretend.

Bill Hybels indicated, at the Global Leadership Summit 2013, that all organizations are in one of three states, downturn, stagnation, or upturn. Everyone in your organization is waiting for you to acknowledge what they already know, but you won’t define.

Dealing with it begins by defining it.

Hybels went on to say that downturns, stagnation, and upturns require unique leadership competencies and behaviors.


  1. Face it head on.
  2. Yell, “Fire!”
  3. Call people to pull together, now.

Leaders yell, “Fire!,” with realistic optimism. They believe we can make things better, today.


  1. Face it head on, once you see it. Stagnation sets in like sleep arrives, slowly and imperceptibly.
  2. Set a fire!
  3. Create a crisis.


  1. Face it head on. Sustaining an upturn is hard; losing momentum easy.
  2. Pour fuel on the fire.
  3. Try new things, release young leaders to take risks.

Do the thing you fear:

Downturn-fear says, “Don’t make a big deal.” Make it!

Stagnation-fear says, “It’s not that bad.” It is!

Upturn-fear says, “We better pull back.” Push forward!

What makes leaders ignore realities?

How can leaders best lead during downturns, stagnation, and upturns?


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