Further exploring the term, “Define Reality”

I have been thinking on and off about that post I wrote about Defining Reality. The inspiration for that post came from Max DePree. DePree believed that defining reality was the primary job of the leader.

I observed several instances over the past couple of weeks where I could sense the truth behind Max’s philosophy and ideas.

I was skimming through a book by Suze Orman, The Laws of Money: 5 Timeless Secrets to Get Out and Stay Out of Financial Trouble, over the weekend while at a friend’s home. One of the 5 laws that Orman mentions in the book is: Look at What You Have, Not at What You Had. The law stresses the importance of assessing yourself and your finances truthfully. Orman states:

The principle behind this law ties in to the Tenth Commandment, about not “coveting” anyone else’s belongings or relationships, life situation, or talents. Nor are you supposed to long for something that is past, over and done with, gone. That is a terrible waste of your energy, time, and money, and no good can come of it. Let yourself see the truth about what you really have right now.

After reading the paragraph, I could immediately sense a strong parallel with DePree’s ideas and what Orman was advocating.

Last week, while searching for some material about team work and the effectiveness of team work, I came across an interview with Richard Hackman 1 on teamwork. The interviewer posed the following question to Hackman – You’ve said that for a team to be successful, it needs to be real. What does that mean? I was immediately intrigued by the question as it touches on the concept that DePree advocates – Defining Reality and was curious to see Richard’s answer.

Hackman provided the following answer:

At the very least, it means that teams have to be bounded. It may seem silly to say this, but if you’re going to lead a team, you ought to first make sure that you know who’s on it. In our recent book Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, and I collected and analyzed data on more than 120 top teams around the world. Not surprisingly, we found that almost every senior team we studied thought that it had set unambiguous boundaries. Yet when we asked members to describe their team, fewer than 10% agreed about who was on it. And these were teams of senior executives!

The materials above did help me get a better understanding of the phrase, Defining Reality. At the same time, I found myself grappling with the phrase and was trying to determine what DePree wanted to communicate and what he truly meant by the phrase, Defining Reality. I felt there was some nuance with the phrase and was struggling to decipher the subtleties.

I had a breakthrough when I could determine the root of my struggles while reading the blog, Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality, by Jim Harris. In his blog post, The Point of View paradox, Jim discusses how “our points of view influences the way we think and the way we act”. Jim starts this blog post by mentioning Stephen Covey.

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

One of the book’s key points is that we need to carefully examine our point of view, the way we “see” the world—not in terms of our sense of sight, but instead in terms of the way we perceive, interpret, and ultimately understand the world around us.

As Covey explains early in the book, our point of view can be divided into two main categories, the ways things are (realities) and the ways things should be (values).  We interpret our experiences from these two perspectives, rarely questioning their accuracy.

The distinction between realities: the way things are and values: the ways things should be helped crystallize some of the struggles I had with the phrase, Define Reality. Define Reality guides you to focus on the present – the here and now. I believe one of the responsibilities of a leader is to set a vision for the future. In my mind, I was trying to reconcile the idea of Defining Reality, which I felt emphasized the present, with the idea of a vision and values, that emphasized the future.

I stepped back and tried to explore the phrase, Define Reality, further. Was the phrase truly emphasizing the present? I felt, Define Reality, was stopping me from thinking about the future. I asked myself if I was interpreting DePree correctly.  Is this what DePree was trying to communicate? Was I misinterpreting DePree’s intention? Were my ideas about the term, Define Reality, too narrow? I felt a little lost in the sea of questions I posed to myself!

I conducted a thought experiment to unravel these questions – Are we defining reality when we express our feelings and thoughts truthfully about where we wish to go, what we would like to achieve and the values we want to live by? I believe the answer to the question is yes, if our dreams, goals and values that we want to pursue are something that we truly believe in and not merely wishes and fads. If we speak about values that we truly do not believe in, we are not defining reality, we are defining fantasies. If we talk about dreams that we are not willing to work hard for, we are not defining reality, we are defining fantasies.

I would be lying if I say that I was able to crystallize the concept of Defining Reality completely in my head. However, these exercises make me feel like I am headed in the right way! ;->

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts about this.


  1.  Richard is a professor at Harvard University who teaches and conducts research in social and organizational pscychology. Here’s a brief bio of Hackman.
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