Remember when you were a kid and you used to play make-believe? (Or maybe it was just last week… either way, still applies!) For me and Brett Chandler and Eric Edwards (my two best, childhood friends), this ranged from imagining our bikes were fighter jets after seeing Top Gun, to immersing ourselves in the epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons with our Transformers action figures, and even pretending we were soaring through the cosmos on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (I was/am a huge Star Trek nerd. I may have forced them into that one. Sorry, guys!) But, the real highlight for us was creating our own detective agency during the summer of 1987.
The BEC Detective Agency (that’s Barnes, Edwards, Chandler… we were super clever at eight years old!) operated out of the large shed in our backyard that housed the pool equipment. We spent a lot of time back there solving mysteries of some sort. While I really have no recollection of what mysteries we were solving, I do remember that we forced my little sister to be our secretary who we’d make stay in the shed to “take our calls” while we went to eat lunch inside. (Sorry, Meri!) At one point, one of the neighbors came to us to help find her missing cat. I’m pretty sure we found it within the hour. I’m also pretty sure she knew exactly where the cat was and was humoring us by giving us something to do. (Thanks, Jeannie!) In any case, we loved playing pretend as a way to pass time during the long summers of our childhoods.
When I see kids playing make-believe now, I get a bit nostalgic. It’s adorable and inspiring to watch young minds exercise their creativity by living out their fantasies of visiting strange, far-off places without even leaving their backyards. It is, however, not so adorable to watch adults do this in their professional lives.
There’s a scenario that is, unfortunately, so common that, without trying, I can think of a dozen examples. Here’s what it looks like: an organization starts off strong and successful. Over time, things begin to deteriorate. For whatever reason (and there are many possible reasons), whatever it was that was attractive about the organization at first has slowly faded. The ideals once fought for are taken for granted (and, often, so are the people). Employees begin to get restless… and then dissatisfied… and then annoyed… and then a little bitter… and then a lot bitter… and, well, you get the point! All the while, leadership has not acknowledged that there’s a problem. In fact, they still talk and act like things are as they were in their heyday. They’re choosing to play make-believe and are blissfully unaware that the ship they are captaining is sinking. (“Hello there, Denial! Nice to see you again!”)
Sometimes, it’s the original leaders lacking the awareness that they may not be as respected or successful as they once were. In other cases, a leader will leave for whatever reason and the new leader who steps in to take their place lacks the awareness that they don’t automatically command the respect and authority that their predecessor had. (It’s tragic to watch these leaders playing make believe as they go about acting like those who came before.) Okay… one quick example!
There was an organization that, in the late 90s, was hugely successful. They were innovative, they treated their people incredibly well and the vast majority of people involved in the organization loved their jobs and were passionate about what they were doing. Positions at this organization were highly coveted. (One person wanted to work there so bad that, when he didn’t get the first two executive level positions he applied for, he applied to be the janitor. For reals!) For whatever reason, after several years of this kind of momentum, things began to slow down. Little by little, the things that once made this organization unique and exciting fell by the wayside. The reputation of the once-respected and even envied organization began to suffer. The CEO (who we’ll call “Chris”) knew something was wrong, but the executives around him refused to accept that anything had changed. Chris couldn’t figure out how to fix things and, when he tried, butted heads with the other execs. So, he left. One of the other executives (who we’ll call “Seth”) took his place and continued to ignore the problems. In fact, from an outside perspective, one would think that Seth was playing make-believe by pretending that it was still the golden era of the organization and he was playing the role of Chris during that time. Because of the trickle-down effect of denial, many in the organization played along with Seth choosing to be unaware of the fact that they weren’t operating in the realm of reality anymore. Others chose to see things for what they were and high-tailed it for greener pastures.
Here’s the thing: even when I was a kid playing make-believe, I was aware that I was playing make-believe! If the BEC Detective Agency was on a case and my mom told me it was time to come in for dinner, we put the fantasy on hold and went back to reality. If we hadn’t done that, there would have been negative consequences. It goes without saying that the consequences for a leader who is choosing to ignore reality are far greater than they are for a kid who wants to keep playing.* Their choices affect real people in real ways.
So, here are the questions to consider: Are your leaders living in reality? Are they choosing to be aware of what’s happening around them or are they making the choice to embrace denial and play pretend? What about your personal relationships? It’s so easy for a friendship, partnership or romantic relationship to start out strong and slowly deteriorate over time. Are you or the other parties in your relationships choosing to acknowledge when there are problems and then dealing with them, or are you choosing to play pretend like everything is just dandy as it once was?
If the ship is taking on water and the captain just keeps on sailing for The Bahamas with a smile on his face, you might want to think about jumping in a lifeboat. Put another way, if the people calling the shots are choosing to be unaware of reality, it might be #Time2MoveOn.
* Why do we say “it goes without saying,” but then say it anyway? English colloquialisms are weird.