A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?Robert Browning
You know those pictures that circulate online of baking disasters? One went viral just recently, showing a horse cake that someone had made to mark the Queen’s funeral. Those pictures always make me sort of laugh-gasp-sob. I think perhaps grip us in the same way that true crime grips us; namely, with that vertiginous sense of ‘oh my goodness, that could so easily be me’.
We all know what it is to have so perfectly conceived of an idea, a flawless, shining star in our imagination. The perfect cake, the perfect holiday, the perfect relationship, the perfect presentation, the perfect business strategy.
And we all know what it feels like, a few short moves later, to be standing amidst a disaster zone – our holiday a week of tummy bugs and bickering, our latest flame a damp squib, a powerpoint met with tumbleweed, a business plan that hasn’t delivered as planned. At least the cake had buttercream and sprinkles.
In the various conversations about what is required of leaders now and what it means to lead well in periods of constant uncertainty and change, it seems to me that this is an aspect that we tend to overlook.
We ask our leaders to be visionary – to dream big, to re-imagine how their part of the world could be and then to ignite and inspire that vision in others We ask them to have audacious ambition.
And then we ask those same leaders to stand amidst the sticky mess of real life – political turmoil, volatile markets, burnt out teams, ambiguous targets, under-invested infrastructure – and to be immediately pragmatic and can-do and tactical. To put aside dreams and deal with the reality that’s right in front of them.
That’s a big flex to ask of anyone. Much easier either to just keep dreaming, or perhaps to never dream at all – just get your head down and cope with reality moment to moment.
But being able to do both is precisely the work of a great leader. And yes, it’s hard.
It’s hard because inside that shift is a grief. For a season you’re carrying around everything that your business, your project, could be. Creation begins with possibility, and possibility is boundless.
And then there’s a season when sh*t gets real, when the infinite takes on form, and you begin see what it’s actually going to be. And it’s never, ever halfway as perfect as your imagination. So you then have to contend with what it is, and be present to that. The team member who is still wrestling with a new skill, a team that doesn’t quite gel, budget constraints, a project that runs over time, a product that doesn’t land.
The good news, and the bad news, is that this is what it’s all about. This is the very essence of being human. And therefore the very essence of being a leader. We are capable of imagining infinity and perfection, and limited – by virtue of our resources, skills, capacity and mortality – in our ability to realise those imaginings.
So by definition, ANYTHING we bring into the world is going to be the imperfect version of what we can fantasise about. And – worse (better!) – as you’re making something real, you are simultaneously learning and growing so that you forever see beyond the outer limits of the thing you’re making.
Frustrating, right? Yes. And also brilliant.
Big dreams and audacious ambition are vital. Every time we come up with a new idea, we’re contributing to the ongoing creation of the world.
And then, you have to actually jump in and do it.
When you jump, you’re committing. You’re discarding the infinite possibilities in order to actually make one thing real. You’re limiting yourself. And that’s risky. What if you choose wrong? You might. What if you make something and it ends up being just a bit rubbish? You might. Horse cake, crap dates, poetry that descends into doggerel, unfinished projects that haven’t changed the world after all …
But what’s the alternative? It’s easy to talk. It’s easy to dwell in the seductive fantasy of the perfect strategy, the perfect team, the perfect role. But then all your creative energy doesn’t go anywhere, nothing gets better, no-one learns anything … and that all seems a bit pointless, no?
Rob Bell talks about people who approach him to tell him about all the incredible ideas they have.
“Great!” he says,
“Great! Make one.”
Leaders, listen. What you make happen in your organisations will fall short of what you dreamed of. And that will break your heart a little bit every time. But if you want to show up and do the work and participate in this great adventure, you need to muster the courage and humility to handle that.
If you can do that, you get to find out what the real thing actually is. You get to make peace with that. You get to learn and grow. You get to participate. And that, surely, is the whole point.