Cy Wakeman is a dynamic national keynote speaker and a New York Times best-selling author who has spent over 20 years cultivating a revolutionary approach to leadership and work. Her Reality-Based Philosophy helps leaders and their teams ditch the drama, turn excuses into results, and find opportunities in every challenge they face. We recently checked in with Cy to learn more about Reality-Based Leadership. Here’s what here’s what she had to say:
Can you tell us a little about your professional journey? How did you become so passionate about leadership?
Before I became passionate about leadership I was passionate about people having more success and happiness in their lives. I worked as a therapist and helped clients find completely different ways of approaching their lives so that they could be more successful and happier at home and at work. In helping my clients I quickly realized that many people approached success and happiness from a very passive position – they actually believed that they needed different circumstances or different a reality, or at least changes in the reality in order for them to be happy or successful.
As a therapist I worked hard to tell my clients learn that their happiness wasn’t correlated to their circumstances and that suffering was in fact optional and often self-imposed. When I was promoted to a leadership position I realized that many of my employees and colleagues struggled with these very same challenges that my clients had in my therapy practice. While they wanted increased happiness and success at work, they actually believed that the only way to get it was to have different circumstances or reality stacked in their favor.
In an effort to make sure that my team was both engaged in producing great results I started to teach them some of the same rules I have been teaching clients for years. As I worked to my first leadership position I began to realize how often what we were teaching leaders was exactly the opposite of what we knew from our research in the field of psychology and the opposite of what would actually work in creating results and happiness in the workplace.
I tried to fall in line with traditional management and leadership practices. I tried to do the things I was taught, but it just didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t fall in line with the traditional thinking and kept getting hung up on the fact that much of what I was asked to do as a leader actually contradicted reality. So I can’t say that I ever really had a passion for leadership. I had a passion to help people succeed and to help the field of leadership development get more aligned with what we knew about brain science and what we knew from the field and perspective of positive psychology.
I began to experiment with a pretty revolutionary new approach to leadership and employee engagement. Instead of working to perfect the circumstances of my employees I worked to help them grow beyond their circumstances. I coached them to help them see that growth came in bite-size pieces and where they felt pain was where they needed to grow next. I didn’t do what was typical of other leaders who were working to perfect the circumstances of their employees and instead worked to develop more of a reality-based mindset grounded in personal accountability. It was with this new mindset that employees became seemingly bulletproof or immune to the things that might happen to them. They came to understand that their circumstances were not the reasons they couldn’t succeed – just the reality in which they must succeed.
My team became very skillful in delivering results in spite of their circumstances. Ultimately, people noticed the success and high engagement of my teams and asked us to do more for the organization in the form of turnarounds. They saw our repeated success and began to ask me what my leadership secrets were that I could have such highly engaged people who produce great results. I would say that my passion was really an organic one born out of commitment to deliver great results for my organization and my insistence that my people stay engaged knowing that engagement is their choice not a condition that I have to deliver to them.
What leaders do you look up to? What lessons have they taught you?
The leaders that I look up to are leaders I’ve encountered outside of typical organizations. They are leaders who are involved in helping others evolve in their approaches to the world. Byron Katie is a favorite teacher of mine and she has taught me to question everything I think and to approach everything with a beginner’s mind. From her teaching, I have come to realize that most of what we think happened, never really did. I have learned that one’s stress is from the stories we make up about reality, not from the reality itself. It’s from this higher level of consciousness, that I can stay committed to the truth and I find that the truth really does set you free.
Another leader I’ve learned a lot from is Maharishi Muhesh. His students have taught me the process of transcendental meditation and the amazing benefits that can be derived from a faithful practice of TM. His philosophy involves working toward higher levels of consciousness so that you can operate more skillfully in the world as a leader. It has been very valuable to me.
As far as a leader who is in the trenches, I would have to say Frank Calderoni is one of the leaders I most admire. He is currently the COO at Red Hat was the CFO at Cisco prior to that. In my work with Frank, he has taught me to dream big and to trust the process. He has been a master at climate change as he works through major organizational changes by keeping his focus not on the few resistors but on the silent majority. He favors and works to activate the silent majority and doesn’t let the naysayers corrupt his data on what is working and not working. Frank just keeps favoring those colleagues and employees who can step in and commit to be an active part on creating the change and steadily builds the numbers of supporters knowing that soon the energy of all of that tips the change scale in his favor.
What is reality-based leadership?
Reality-based leadership is a philosophy by which leaders work to eliminate drama or emotional waste from the workplace through teaching and holding others accountable to using great mental processes. It’s focused on ditching the drama, which is emotional waste in the workplace, and turning excuses into results by giving employees fluent in accountable practices.
Why do you think reality-based leadership is important in today’s business world?
In my research I have found that the average employee spends two hours per day in drama. Two hours per day wasted in emotional waste in the workplace! Reality-based leadership actually gives people the tools and skills necessary to recapture two hours per day per headcount and reinvest it in results. The great byproduct of the effort is enhanced engagement – especially from highly accountable employees.
For many organizations today I can’t think of a more profound impact on the bottom line then the ability to eradicate two hours per day per headcount of waste from the workplace. Leadership can actually BE the process by which this waste can be eliminated. This is an unimaginable ROI for any effort, let alone for leadership. I am confident that reality-based leadership can absolutely restore competitive advantage to workplace all the while enhancing engagement and creating innovative collaborative environments that will lead to even greater results in the future.
What does reality-based leadership look like in practice?
In practice, a leader views their role as managing energy and ensuring the the mental energy and physical energy and resources are directed in a way that will create ROI for the organization. Leaders focus less on perfecting the circumstances of their people and work instead to grow their people so that they are skillful enough to succeed in spite of the circumstances. Leaders coach the people in front of them to raise their level of consciousness so that they can approach their issues or challenges from a much different perspective and with greater skillfulness.
Leaders use tools and great mental processes that they teach others and facilitate the application of the tools in real time to find breakthroughs to daily challenges. One of the sets of tools is a series of questions that enable people to bypass the ego and get right into self-reflection and accountability. For instance, when someone is upset and into drama – a simple question such as, “What do you know for sure?” and “What could you do next to add value?” will help the coachee move into self-reflection and a search for the facts which will open up a variety of options already known to the coachee that they can act on to add value. In practice, those using Reality-Based Leadership appear neutral, calm and are utilizing tools of self-reflection to call people to greatness. Leadership becomes almost effortless and employees grow in record fashion.
You write about restoring sanity to the workplace. What insane habits, practices, behaviors, etc. do you observe in the businesses you try to help?
One belief that I encountered early on was a belief that a leader shouldn’t play favorites. Many people have adopted this belief and are frequently on the lookout for proof that a leader has indeed broken this belief that isn’t logical in the first place. Of course a leader plays favorites – the marketplace plays favorites, it is a bottom line philosophy of capitalism.
We teach leaders to play favorites on valid reasons such as one’s accountability levels or readiness for what’s next rather than one’s various differences in background or lifestyle. I was approached frequently by more victim-minded people who protested, “Cy, you play favorites!” to which I traditionally replied, “Yes, I do. Would you like to be one?” Anyone can be a favorite by becoming fluent in the very competencies necessary to succeed in the present and be ready for the future. One can’t, however, expect to neglect their own responsibility in being ready to deliver now and in the future and then expect to be shielded from the reality of others being favored.
How do these practices hurt business?
In businesses we continue to re-enforce beliefs that people are at the mercy of their circumstances and we coddle people rather than grow people in response to what is needed next. We work to slow changes down and to ensure that change is least disruptive to the people at work when we need to be able to implement at the speed of change and to make sure change is least disruptive for the business. The more we try and soften the change or the reality, the more we ensure that our people are even less ready for what’s next. Growth comes in bite-size pieces – upgrades if you will and to try and buy people’s love and keep them engaged, we rescue them from having to get fluent with every upgrade that is called for from reality and before we know it, our people are completely out of touch and unready for what’s next.
Change isn’t hard. Change is only hard for the unready. When we protect people from reality, we ensure that they are less ready for what’s next. Then when change is coming at us hard, these same folks resist change – it is their only option otherwise they will be exposed as unready. Unenlightened leaders reinforce this delusion around change by continuing to talk about how hard change is rather than point out that only the unready are struggling. If you want change to be a non-issue with your people, quit wishing reality were less in flux and grow your people’s level of readiness.
Where should business leaders start when trying to restore sanity to their organization?
Business leaders need to start with questioning their own thinking. They need to edit their own stories and ditch their own drama. They need to learn the Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace and get very clear what their role as a leader truly entails.
What advice do you find yourself repeating to leaders over and over?
Get very clear on the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is seeing and understanding that someone is struggling and sympathy goes further to feel sorry for the person and collude with them that they are innocent victims and that they problems they face are due to their circumstances. If you roll out a new requirement with empathy, you simply let people know what is now required from the organization and get the group involved in planning for how the team can comply without effecting service and deadlines.
If you roll out that same idea with sympathy, you begin by apologizing for having the team take on more responsibility and you go on to give your own personal opinions about whether or not you agree with the change and how you feel about being held accountable. Sympathetic leaders usually spend a great deal of team time talking about why it isn’t possible, or why something isn’t fair or doable – basically why we can’t. They lead people to believe that they are at the mercy of their circumstances when this just simply is never the case.
When you see someone struggle, an empathetic leader acknowledges the struggle and calls the person to greatness – helping them to find the very place they need to grow next to become immune from the struggle. Sympathetic leaders acknowledge the struggle and then help the employee find many reasons why they don’t need to grow or shouldn’t have to grow. They lead employees to argue with reality rather than to grow in response to reality.