Real Leaders

Fantastic Power or Powerful Fantasy?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Haven’t you heard? The media is having a ball with a very unlikely story that has questioned every authority in Spain. A mysterious twenty-year-old we’ve called “little Nicolas” claims to have been involved in critical State affairs under orders from the CNI — The National Center of Intelligence — and the Spanish Vice-President herself.

What’s most surprising, however, is that he made it all the way to national television last Saturday evening, becoming a global trending topic on social networks. Everybody wants a say in the matter of separating fiction from fact. Huge laughs are an added bonus! I kid you not.

This story has been on every credible journal’s cover for the last month. The boy has been photographed with every politician and business man in Spain. He managed to get himself into carefully planned and protected celebrations of all sorts, including our King’s proclamation ceremony, and he got driven around by Madrid security agents in official cars. Until he was detained by six undercover agents who supposedly belong to police internal affairs.

Once the giddy giggles stop, we have to ask ourselves: is he the victim of powerful fantasies or did he actually build the fantastic power many attributed to him? I’m fascinated by this whole phenomenon. On one hand I love our Spanish sense of humor. We Spanish can be acutely funny and creative in our sarcasm when we gossip on the radio, television and social networks about stories like this one. But on the other hand I wonder, like most of us, what is real and what isn’t.

To each of us the plausibility of little Nicolas’s story is entirely different, which tells us that our own interpretation of reality is not sound proof either. It’s where many, many leaders have failed in the past. And where many yet will fall to ruin in the future. Because a leader is in charge of formulating a strategic vision for himself and his followers.

Whether he is the father of a small family or the CEO of a Fortune 500 multi-billion dollar organization, any mistake in his interpretation of the challenges and realities he faces can cost his followers everything. In battle it can cost them their lives. In our world of economic wars, it can cost many families their freedom to live with dignity for life. A leader’s interpretation of the opportunities and threats in his market is the foundation of all his followers’ future wellbeing.

But as the saying goes, there are always three versions of what happened: his version, her version, and what really went down. Reality is not what we think it is. Another great pearl of wisdom says that the truth is nothing more than a big lie we’ve all agreed to call true. Every human conflict in the world has two sides who can’t agree on what the truth is. Our individual perception of the world around us drags us into fights and conflicts on every level throughout our lives: family disputes, business partner fall outs, political divorces, organizational strikes…we can drag them out as long as money, power and technology allow us to.

Or we can learn to take a step back and question our own perception of things. I remember a time when I rarely questioned what I thought about how things were. I grilled everybody else, of course. But I never really challenged myself. I was sure that I was right. And yet I wasn’t. Failure taught me many times how wrong I was about so many things. Ten or fifteen years later I think that the biggest indicator of my ‘rightness’ is how often I step back and ask myself if I’m getting it all wrong again.

If I’m being fooled by my hidden wants and unconscious filters of perception. If I’m making a move out of fear or out of grounded serenity. If you ever found yourself leading a bunch of people to disaster, you know the guilt of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who, as a German medieval legend says, led children out of the city to be drowned. You ask yourself with incredulity how you could have been so fooled by your own tune that you never even considered that you might guiding your team, or your family and friends’ investments, or your entire corporation, to certain economic death.

And the response is always the same: we are fooled by our own fantastic tune when we use it to escape from our own ugly emotions. We don’t ask ourselves if our excel sheets are too optimistic because we’re scared of contemplating a less positive scenario. We convince ourselves that our business plans have to be right because we don’t want to accept how angrily important other people’s approval is to us. We run into futuristic fantasies because we’re running away from something in our past…something that is still present in the emotions and impulses our physical body briefly betrays when nobody’s looking.

We buy into fantastic strategy when we can’t face the intensity of deep ugliness in our own person. There’s no amount of money, success or power, however, to protect us from the stuff inside ourselves. It always, always, always catches up with us. When I’m done giggling at the spectacle, I feel bad for little Nicolas.

His glazed eyes, enlarged pupils and unexpressive face would raise an eyebrow in any savvy observer. They are not the features of a grounded, realistic young man. Sadly he’s managed to hold on to unlikely interpretations of events that may cost him and his family very dearly. The legal and reputational consequences of his last month of choices, declarations and actions may follow them all for many decades to come. The best indicator of mental health I know looks at the distance between a person’s wannabe talk and his real walk.

The gap between a family’s or company’s official self-description and the secret burdened reality that nobody dares discuss is a telling sign of problems. As more and more national institutions publish statements to deny absolutely everything this young man has said to the media, it becomes blatantly apparent that the gap between his talk and his walk is much wider than most.

Still, mental health is not an on-off button. It’s a continuum of shades that go from spick ‘n span healthy white to mentally ill black. Nobody is in the white. At least not anybody I know. Despite what our mirrors may tell us when we beg for a proof of reality every morning.

We’re all struggling with our very own shade of grey: Am I crazy? Does anybody else see what I see? Should I trust my gut or should I take my friends’ advice? Leading others is a huge responsibility. If we ask others to follow our dreams of power and success, we must conquer the hidden powers of our own fantasies first.

The next time you question your mirror in the morning, look at the ugly part. That’s how it will lose all fantastic power over you.

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