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Dare to be a Real Leader, not an Apocaholic

October 26, 2015
Mandela The human condition is driven by hope.

We have, as a species, a tremendous capacity to deal with adversity, to adapt to volatile change and to move forward to make our lives better. As much as we like to complain, the world as a whole is better off than in the past. Whether they’re advancements in medical research in disease prevention (eg, malaria), civil rights (eg, women and blacks being able to vote and gays being allowed to marry) or engineering to make our motor vehicles safer and with reduced emissions, society has improved. Of course Apocaholics don’t like to face this reality.

When it comes to political leadership, creating a vision of hope is what engages an electorate; follow-through is the next important step to realize that vision. For example, reflect for a moment on the accomplishments of Nelson Mandela (pictured) following his release from a South African prison after 27 years.

In organizations, smart leaders at the top don’t create a picture of despair but rather one of creating a new future. Employees don’t want to be on a sinking ship. However, it’s also vital to be straight and honest with employees. Witness Nokia CEO Stephen Elop’s burning memo to employees on February 9, 2011.

Einstein-leadership While the memo is lengthy Elop laid out the challenges facing Nokia, but ends on a note of looking to the future. After his opening paragraphs where he recounts the story of the man on the burning platform, he states: “We too, are standing on a “burning platform,” and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.”

Elop continues, noting Nokia’s key competitors and the challenges the company faces. He concludes his memo with:

“Nokia, our platform is burning.
We are working on a path forward — a path to rebuild our market leadership. When we share the new strategy on February 11, it will be a huge effort to transform our company. But, I believe that together, we can face the challenges ahead of us. Together, we can choose to define our future.
The burning platform, upon which the man found himself, caused the man to shift his behaviour, and take a bold and brave step into an uncertain future. He was able to tell his story. Now, we have a great opportunity to do the same.


Take note of the use of the word “we” in Elop’s memo. His approach was to lay it out straight to employees and to seek their assistance in helping Nokia make an abrupt change in course. He didn’t lay blame or make excuses. His intent was to bring employees together to move forward towards a shared vision.

Bill and Melinda Gates play with baby in Mozambique That’s what real leaders do when the going gets tough. Laying blame, making excuses or predicting the end of the organization only perpetuates its decline. Apocaholism serves no constructive purpose. Yet, consider that for over 200 years pessimists have held the headlines of newspapers, and later television, radio and, most recently, the internet. Huge effort goes into pessimists, whether journalists, politicians, business analysts or pseudo wannabee experts, predicting the future. “Oh, the pain to come,” they exclaim.

In an environment where negativity and pessimism get rewarded, it presents top executive leaders with the added challenge to remain positive about the future. Witness the incredible work that Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates (pictured) and his wife Melinda are doing to combat malaria in Africa.

Real leaders, regardless of whether they’re in the private or public sectors, lift up their followers–employees, stakeholders and constituents–through a shared vision that engages everyone. In short, people feel included and part of the solution and the future.

Apocaholics, of course, will come up with excuses of why things are bad, that they will worsen and that the end is near. But they continue to forget, as alluded to at the opening of this post, human beings are highly adaptable and incredibly adept at finding solutions–indeed sometimes after many delays–to seemingly intractable problems.

Take a moment to check out this piece from Gary Alexander, a recovering Apocaholic since leaving the church of the Religious Apocalypse in 1976. He lays it out clearly in terms of the inconsistencies and contradictions of self-professors futuristic naysayers.

So the next time you’re faced with apocalyptic pronouncements from whatever source, take them with a grain of salt and seek out the opportunities for improvement, wherever that they may be.

I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’

Colum McCann

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