You’ve probably heard the trite leadership maxim “Perception is Reality.” It often comes as part of a message that you need to do a better job at something or alter your behavior in some way. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself muttering in frustration, “No… reality is reality,” as you reject responsibility for the fickle and arbitrary opinions of your shipmates. Like the “Message to Garcia” and “You Get What You Inspect,” the phrase “Perception is Reality” is usually frustrating and is often abused, but it contains important truths that are worth examining.
First of all, we should discuss what “Perception is Reality” does not mean. It’s not about playing politics, currying favor with superiors, or kissing ass– anyone trying to lead you down that path is not someone you want to follow. Usually, these ideas just turn out to be rationalizations; force fields that an immature officer will project when his dignity is under assault. If the he can convince himself that the criticism he faces is punishment for refusal to “play the game,” then he can walk away feeling like a defiant, nonconformist hero instead of a weak officer—the problem is with the System, not his performance.
Perception is reality. What it means is that for others, be they your peers, subordinates, or superiors, how they perceive you is reality to them—and how you perceive yourself has nothing to do with it. It means that your behaviors and their results matter infinitely more than your intentions. It means that if you have a reputation—however unjustified—as lazy, reckless, racist, sexist, promiscuous, malcontent, incompetent or any other word for “unfit for leadership,” then you have a serious problem and need to get to the bottom of it.
You are completely capable of being wrong
Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. If you’ve got a negative reputation that you’d like to shake, then there is some underlying behavior which has led to it. Leadership books will tell you that it’s your responsibility to manage your reputation. I disagree slightly; I think that managing reputations is the business of politicians and celebrities. Instead, you should focus on managing your behavior. Fix your behavior, and your reputation will take care of itself.
This will only work if you heed the alarms and recognize when there’s a problem. Seek and destroy rationalizations; acknowledge that you are completely capable of being wrong. If you’re getting negative feedback, then the problem is with you, period, end of story. Good officers instinctively take responsibility—even if you really are a victim of circumstances, it does you no good to believe it.
“We are what we pretend to be… so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”