Better Living through Realism

The late Dr. M. Scott Peck observed that the healthiest people tended to be those most grounded in reality.

Over the course of his career, the late psychiatrist and bestselling author M. Scott Peck noticed a recurring pattern among his patients:  The ones most likely to recover tended to be those most grounded in reality — realists, in other words — while the patients least amenable to his help were those furthest removed from reality.

He also noted that the most unreachable clients tended to suffer from acute forms of narcissism, often in the most extreme form: malignant narcissism.

Peck’s insights have stuck with me for more than a quarter century after reading his first book, “The Road Less Travelled,” which I highly recommend to those of you who have not yet had the good fortune of reading it.  In fact, they’ve proven to be some of the most valuable insights into human nature I ever acquired in the course of my reading.  Getting real — striving to conform one’s daily life as closely as possible to reality — isn’t necessarily the key to happiness, but I’m fully convinced that it’s a hallmark of sound mental health.

Recently, I came across two items, one that highlighted the personal philosophy of one highly successful executive, the other that explored the traits of the most conspicuously unsuccessful executives.  Both, I believe, underscore the enduring value of Peck’s insights.

All of us Extension professionals would do well to read them and take their lessons to heart.

The first item, a New York Times interview with AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, demonstrated the strong correlation between realism and long, highly successful careers.    Successful executives, like mentally healthy people in general, don’t fear reality but embrace it. They invite criticism and surround themselves with talented subordinates who do not cringe from offering straight talk.

Donovan was fortunate enough to have acquired an appreciation for realism relatively early in his career.  He also developed an enduring appreciation for another trait closely associated with realism: Selflessness.

In terms of creativity and innovation, he ultimately learned that fretting over accolades proves entirely self-defeating.

“If you figure there’s a karma pool out there floating around for credits, you have to stop playing for credits,” he says. “I remember the day I realized that, and I probably never again need to involve scorekeeping in anything I did.”

Along the way, Donovan also developed an affinity for giving away roles.  He began assigning roles with which he had grown comfortable and proficient to other members of the team.   His gratification came from seeing the results that followed as more people stepped up to the plate to contribute their own unique insights and talents.

“I sort of see myself over time as needing to play the game less, but I’m becoming better at getting even better results by that combination of the right framework and the right people in the right positions.”

Okay, I’ll admit it: My throat tightened a bit when Donovan related the stages of his career.  Early in his career he set out to be smart, while later in life he has striven to be wise. It’s a critical distinction.

At roughly the same time I read Donovan’s interview I also surfed onto another piece that complemented it — actually, contrasted would be a better term within this context.

In “The Seven Traits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives,” Forbes contributor Eric Johnson discusses the eight traits cited by Dartmouth College Business Professors Sydney Finkelstein that typically consign CEOs and their companies to mediocrity, if not extinction.

I was struck by how all of these maladaptive traits all stem from an failure to grasp reality.

Finkelstein noted that the most unsuccessful executives typically overestimate the degree to which they control events.  Not surprisingly, they also tend to view others in their companies as agents responsible for implementing their personal company vision — little wonder why they often viewed their companies as extensions of themselves rather than as enterprises that should be carefully nurtured.

Delusional thinking and behavior are often expressed in other ways too, Finkelstein noted.  Poor executives tend to be enamored with those stereotypical superhuman CEOs who deal with multiple crises through independent snap decision-making on their own, seldom consulting knowledgeable associates.

Another troubling hallmark of these executives: Their ruthless elimination of anyone whose views didn’t conform to their own.

Fortunately for us, there has been a strong, longstanding institutional disliking within Cooperative Extension for these types of  traits. We have always valued selfless collaborators and team builders over lone narcissistic wolves.  Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that the values that Donovan and other visionaries have embodied over the course of their careers will likely be the defining traits of the new information order.

The better we understand these values, take them to heart and practice them in the course of our everyday work, the better equipped we will be to navigate our way through this new order.

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