Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is widely considered one of the most effective treatment programs for alcoholism. It’s a 12-step program that has stood the test of time for 83 years.
Step one states that “a person must acknowledge they are an alcoholic and are powerless in their ability to control alcohol.” And because it’s a step-by-step program, a person can’t progress to step two until they have completed step one.
So, in other words, step one means it starts with confronting a painful reality. It’s not easy to admit such a thing. It’s easier to conjure up other explanations. It’s plain easier to lie to ourselves. People do it every day.
Having a personal alcohol problem is an issue; missing business targets over and over signals a clear issue; having personal goals and missing them is an issue. We all have issues in our private and professional lives. And the road to solving them always starts with confronting reality, no matter how painful.
After all, dodging reality and creating a dream world doesn’t solve anything. We may keep finding new explanations and it feels good to live in a dream world, but the issues will persist.
I was reading some social media posts on the recent performance of a sports team: based on the pure numbers, this particular team had a dismal performance in a recent competition. They came away from the tournament empty-handed. Nearly every individual player showed regressive performance versus historical levels. It’s pretty difficult to say things are getting better for them.
While this harsh fact was being discussed on social media, one of the coaches foolishly decided to be defensive and attack others in a crude “ad-hominem” approach (when you don’t like what people say, you attack the person). So suddenly, unless a person is himself a tourney champion, he can’t have an opinion?
As long as this is the line of approach of the coaches, the issue is going to perpetuate. This team will never win. Attacking people who make legitimate observations isn’t going to fix the issue of winning games. Instead of looking in the mirror and confronting the reality of the coaching, diets, training plans and the players themselves, it becomes a game of positioning and trying to find “spin” — to lie to themselves. Things are never going to improve until step one is done: confronting painful realities.
Say a person wants to lose weight and they aren’t successful. They blame genetics or a “slow metabolism,” and that makes them feel better. But this keeps them from confronting the painful realities — perhaps a lack of discipline or too much ice cream, cake and rice. And until they confront the reality, the issue won’t go away.
One of my competitors is having a difficult time in the market. They are losing. And I have a long line of employees from that company coming to my office and asking about open roles in my own organization. It’s a flood, every day, of inquiries.
I ask them, “Why do you want to leave? All companies go through tough times,” and far too many of them tell stories of how they are constantly asked to manipulate numbers and “create a story” or sound-bite to make things look better than they really are. So instead of confronting reality, they create an alternative reality that makes them feel better.
It reminds me of a story I once heard during my time in Coca-Cola, when some country was losing overall beverage market share, and the head of the market, in a management presentation, ended up creating a table showing how Coke was winning big “among households of a specific demographic who buy carbonated colas.” It didn’t matter that overall Coca-Cola Company was losing and losing big. The top guy found a way to carve the data in a way that made him look good. It, of course, only delayed what needed to be done, didn’t lead to growth, and eventually reality had to be confronted.
If you don’t confront reality, things are never going to get better. The team in question will continue to lose tournaments. My competitor will continue to lose, and also lose top talent along the way.
It is indeed difficult to confront reality, particularly painful reality. It sears deep into our chests; it rebukes what we really want to think about ourselves or our situations. But it is what it is. Reality marches on regardless of how we look at it.
Confronting reality is a critical essence of leadership, because leadership is all about courage, and it takes courage to confront. Leadership is all about pushing progress forward, improving the state of affairs. This can’t be done until painful realities are confronted and acknowledged. This allows us to work on solutions that deliver results.
Creating “spin” or an alternate reality does feel good. We don’t have to confront painful realities. But in essence, all we do is lie to ourselves and our organizations. And this makes issues far worse and longer-lasting. As the saying goes: