Defining reality

By Zsolt Szalai


One of my favourite stories from Peter Drucker, the leading management scientist of the 20th century, when, talking to some Fortune 500 CEOs, he asked the question: What is the most important responsibility of a leader? There were a lot of good answers (e.g., strategizing, motivating staff, resource allocation, etc.), all of which are important in themselves, but Drucker said to all of them: No, no, and no. Giving up guessing, the CEOs said, Peter, say, we’ll listen to you. The answer was not delayed: The most important responsibility of a leader is to define reality.


When I tell the story in leadership workshops, most of the time the first reaction is always the doubting wonder. This is often followed by the comment that reality is a rather subjective thing. Scratching the surface, this statement is certainly true, since as human beings we tend to interpret reality in our favour and even very often present it to others in a manipulated way. The consequences of this are often not even known or we do not want to know. But I believe that Drucker did not make this statement from this perspective, but had deep conviction and personal experience as a scientist and consultant behind him.


Since learning about this story several years ago, I’ve thought a lot about the statement myself and received a lot of useful thoughts from others in leadership workshops. These all confirmed that Drucker was absolutely right. If a leader does not strive to understand as much as possible the external circumstances affecting his organization and him, and does not have a clear view of what is happening and how in the organization entrusted to him, then there is a high chance that he will not be able to make good decisions and react in a timely manner to what is happening.


However, in order for a leader to come close to understanding reality, he needs a high degree of humility. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, advises that the leader should make a conscious effort to develop a culture of honesty. Create an environment in which problems can be talked about openly and without consequences, and everyone, regardless of their place in the organizational hierarchy, can have their say on what they have a direct view of. Many leaders bastion themselves in a circle with people of trust, who after a while bring him only good news, distorting both external and internal reality. It is also important that the leader, with the exception of emergencies, prefers to drive with questions and not statements, sincerely interested in the opinions of his colleagues. Last but not least, it is important to operate the red-light mechanism: a set of information that, when it appears (e.g. decrease in turnover above a certain rate) in any case, time should be taken immediately to identify the causes and take the necessary measures.


We Christian leaders have a prominent position in defining reality. The Bible, the word of God, reveals to us the actual reality of creation. In prayer, we can ask the Creator of the world to give us clarity on a particular issue, since He knows everything and knows the future. God also gives us a community where we can honestly explore our problems and get independent feedback.


The Apostle Paul also admonished his young disciple, Timothy, in his “leadership training” letters to him, to abide by the word of God because it shows the truth and helps him, the leader, to define reality.


“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Timothy 3:14-17)

Reflection/Discussion Questions

Questions to reflect on:

How do you see your reality, today?

What does the Bible say about your reality today?

How does that help you?

Zsolt Szalai, following his studies on Hungarian and English universities and completion of a doctorate in finance, has spent the last three decades in mid- and upper-management roles in banking, private equity, non-profit organisations and Christian churches. Currently he is self-employed as a business consultant. During his career, Zsolt gained a wide range of experience in corporate finance, capital markets, project finance, innovation management, and business development areas. Zsolt is also adjunct professor at different universities. He is an active speaker and lecturer at conferences, leadership courses, and workshops.