Plenty of Time to be Real

We all struggle with illusions.

A manager decides her boss does not truly understand the demands being placed on her team. The boss tells her he does see the overload for her and asks that she evaluate the situation carefully; then formally request whatever kind of help she believes is needed. But she perceives this “request” as an insensitive stall on his part. She believes he actually does not need that information at all. In partial, passive-aggressive compliance, she asks for several additional staff but does not supply job descriptions for what they would do. He does stall her request at this point, never inquiring about their relationship or what’s really going on, instead asking only if fulfilling her formal request will actually solve the problems her work unit is facing — and reiterating the need for job descriptions. To her this reply simply proves he has a hidden agenda and is unwilling to be of genuine help. They stop talking about the requests and the needs. Instead she continues to work weekends and nights. Her staff members feel guilty about taking off any time. Communication becomes even more strained, reinforcing her belief that she is a victim, and reinforcing his belief — “logical” of course — that he is the well meaning one while she is recalcitrant and illogical. It’s the old story of any conflict, a snake’s nest of inter-related stories we tell ourselves about others and stories we tell about ourselves.


Illusions run deep. The parties justify their perspectives based on their values. She thinks he does not actually care about people. If he did, he wouldn’t question her — he’d come up with the money for more staff. He thinks she does not actually care about performance. If she did she’d do the analysis he’s asked for. She believes he doesn’t see her sense of responsibility. He believes she doesn’t see his. The cycles of miscommunication draw tighter, like strings tangling into an unworkable mess.

In 1970, the great Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, named this kind of relationship impasse in his short volume, Knots. In short coded cryptogram-like statements, our knots delineate how we fail to see one another:

Jack: You are a pain in the neck.
To stop you giving me a pain in the neck
I protect my neck by tightening my neck muscles,
which gives me the pain in the neck
you are.

Jill: My head aches through trying to stop you
giving me a headache.


Jill thinks
Jack thinks
Jill does not see something.

Jack does think
Jill sees it
but Jack does not see
Jill thinks
Jack thinks
Jill does not see.


They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

It’s no coincidence that the origin of the word, illusion, comes from Old French, meaning to mock or to play. As human beings, we layer and hide our certainties about others and about ourselves in complex, interactive ways, and once there it is serious work to untangle the knots.

Actually, the process may not at all be one of untangling them so much as seeing through them, seeing that at bottom we’ve made up our own tragicomedies. To see through our illusions is the eternal quest, the eternal onion peeled one layer at a time.

A trainer I know provided an example of the dynamic when talking about a friend who “inadvertently” shoplifted a small item. The friend felt terribly guilty about it — but didn’t return the item to the merchant. She sees herself as a good person, the trainer commented, the kind of person who doesn’t steal things, and in order to keep believing that consigns herself a great deal of guilt. However, this just covers up that she is, in fact, the sort of person who is perfectly capable of stealing. What she hasn’t done is confront herself with how she is using guilt to maintain her illusions about herself.

This, in turn, is not too different from the manager whose biggest problem is his relationship with a colleague who sees herself as a great communicator, except in his private view, she’s not. But he can’t bring himself to communicate with her about her lack of communication skills, since she’s so clear this is her gift. He protects his self-view that he doesn’t hurt people, but of course he is hurting her by not communicating what he sees. Nor is it different from the boss who abdicates his responsibility by not taking action in a situation where others are clearly abdicating their responsibility. The boss critiques in the background but wants someone else to solve the problem.

Suppose you are a manager. Doesn’t it come down to asking what it is about yourself and others that you believe is true but might not be so? Isn’t it about examining what you believe about your relationships — with your boss or your peers or those who report to you? Isn’t it about what you believe about your company, about the future that may well be dead wrong — and your role in simply going along with what’s going on?

In case you make the assumption that illusions can only cover up bad things about us, consider how many of us in leading roles can be consumed with our illusions about being untalented or inadequate to the real tasks of leadership, and how we keep telling ourselves we have no real courage, no heart. These can be the most destructive illusions. We do in fact have the potential courage but are having trouble reconciling that with inaction. How about the belief that we shouldn’t need each other and must do it all alone, with no trust? Or that we dare not show any weakness or vulnerability? All, all illusions, and everyone of them influencing how we think, see, feel, and all our future outcomes.

Let me suggest for every illusion there is an ego issue, and our job is to see through that issue to where the ego itself is holed up self-protectively, doing its best to make us believe it is the final arbiter of “being smart,” that it is the only thing that can be trusted.

One way to make this point is through drama — in this case, the eight minute opening of the HBO series, The Newsroom, a series about a fictitious news organization. In these opening scenes, the anchor, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), is answering questions from college students as part of a panel. The situation suddenly requires he move out of hiding to confront the illusions he hears going on in the room — and, in doing so, also face himself. (Please be aware there is some profanity in the clip).

As you watch the video, you can ask yourself what is going on here that has something to do with leadership, values, self-disclosure and risk. Ask yourself what ego dilemmas are embedded in this drama, and what it means to actively confront an illusion that permeates the world around you, one that has become part of your own hiding from reality. What I personally find inspiring here is the powerful sense of urgency, the need finally to stop pretending, the raw person showing up at last. Maybe it’s just for a short time — but enough time — plenty of time to be real.

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  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    This is a difficult topic you are considering here, at least from my own personal perspective. If I want to honestly describe myself, I’m a person with a dual facet: a positive hard-worker and a big dreamer reaching the limit of illusions sometimes. What made me this way, I guess it is partly genetic because mum and dad have/had different conflicting personalities, and I ended up having both of them in me. One extra reason that made this duality stronger in me is my “unusual” upbringing environment. There are moments when I needed to be down to earth to face what is on my “earth”, and there are times I needed to escape the ugly reality, to have my own breathing space, my perfect oasis.
    Alas, many times I had to pay a big price for my illusions, forcing me to get back to reality, seeing all chimeras disappearing in thin air.
    Do I really want to see through my own illusions? Do I want my onion to be unpeeled?
    Probably my writing would help me do so, enabling me to answer so many questions, such as why my favorite ever song (since I was a teen) is a “Horse with no name”? What makes the desert so important to me, although I’ve never been in a desert?

    Thank you for pushing me to the limit once again,


  • This post leaves me speechless and breathless. It’s beautiful, and thoughtful,and perfectly describes a struggle many of us deal with. It is particularly useful for leaders as they are being watched and judged by those who are wondering what they’re about, if they can be trusted, and if they want to follow.

    Thanks Dan.

  • Dear Hoda~

    How thoughtful and personal your comments always are, Hoda. And so beautiful.

    You ask the true questions, “Do I really want to see through my own illusions? Do I want my onion to be unpeeled?” For all of us, sometimes I suspect the answer is yes, and sometimes no. As with Plato’s Cave, coming out of the darkness can be blinding for a time — and hurt. We have a relationship with ourselves and I believe that some innate mechanism helps us grow and accommodate more truth, more reality as we go. In that sense, perhaps we are all riding that “horse with no name” and finding our way through the desert — a very spiritual place.

    Thank you again for stopping by. I cherish your comments.

    All the best to you, Hoda


  • Dan,

    Some great thoughts here, which spur more thoughts! Removing the layers and stopping the pretending are so key to leading well. It is always very challenging to do. How do you discuss this with another leader? How do you test their ability to be aware of the layers they have built up? How do you gain enough insight to peel away the pretending?

    Another aspect to illusions are teens. Teens have certain illusions of what they are good at or want to do. Some of this needs to play out, as there is learning in this process.

    Anyway, enjoyed the conversation last night and thinking about this more. Thanks, Dan!


  • Dear Jon~

    Wonderful questions — and you are just the guy to answer them! (I not-so-secretly am encouraging you to write about this topic yourself!)

    One answer is to think of this whole process of communication as one of true friendship and collegiality. If you feel you are simply acting on someone else by telling them something about themselves, then all you are doing is highlighting a blindspot. Typically, this causes people to close down or get mad.

    But if you are approaching as a real friend, then you naturally will want to provide sufficient care, realness, and truth. The vulnerability begins on your side, not on the one whose growth you are trying to support, and can’t be forced.

    I believe the process must feel reciprocal. That is, you are asking as much about your own perceptions and illusions as you are offering information to someone else. In coaching, my clients often want to also teach me something, and I’m beginning to see that as an essential exchange. It’s not a one-way street. Not a one-up position.

    All have to feel safe, free of fear that the conversation will result in separation rather than connection. We can all work on the words that help display that commitment to another’s success in an honest, humble way.

    Will such steps guarantee success? Hardly. But as leaders we are in the business of moving into awkward spaces where risk is involved. Love, trust, doing the right thing, being clear and sure in the message — these are the means to expressing our truth and our care.

    As with teens (and I would argue all of us at any time as we grow), losing illusions is a basic part of self-discovery. It does not happen all at once, but we can always offer our support to another’s learning. This was a very hard lesson for me as a father of teenagers! I wanted to keep them safer than they wanted to keep themselves. It’s a balancing act to let an emerging adult learn. My own solution was to become an advocate for the person who is learning and growing more than try to be the teacher. Predictably, that’s helped a lot!

    All the best, Jon. Thank you so much!


  • Dear Mary Jo~

    Thank you for your very kind words! You are so right, people do judge leaders by whether they see illusions that could stifle them and take them off course, or find a vision that inspires. A common leadership illusion is that because a leader has more authority others have to follow. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    All the best, Mary Jo, and thank you so much!

    (I apologize for your comment not posting right away. For some reason it got caught in the spam file — but that won’t happen anymore.)


  • Dan,

    Powerful post. So much of what I experience in myself and in my organization can fall into these patterns. So important to be aware and to push through the fear to confront the truth. To release ourselves and others from these bottomless pits. Thank you so much for this encouragement. I will definitely share this with others.


  • Dear Scott~

    Thank you — you are so right that unless we push through the fears to at least confront ourselves and what we hold as our own truths, we are in “a bottomless pit.” I love that metaphor. A moment of honest reflection can feel uncomfortable and require some emotional courage and personal vulnerability, but the payoff can be a different way of seeing and acting. We help ourselves; we help those around us, and we have a chance of coming together in new, more meaningful ways. Thank you again for stopping by, Scott!

    All the best

  • Hi Dan

    Loved the labryinth of this piece. Beliefs -houses of cards we all construct, then bring with us into relationships and workplaces and nation states, till the illusions become the reality. Then we build more (including collective illusions) on top of those.

    Yes, my old grad school “hero” the intense R.D. Laing captured it in Knots. And I experienced in my years doing public meditation and then conflict resolution — getting down to the core was the challenge – especially when obscured by so many power issues.

    As you say (and this is key) “All have to feel safe, free of fear that the conversation will result in separation rather than connection.”

    That is the essence of why we create the illusions in the first place – our deepest fears of separation. Even the part that knows that it knows…with the ego on side saying – unsafe, don’t go there.

    This elegant article reminds me once again of the importance and power of beliefs in the work that I do.

    Thank you,

  • Dear Louise~

    I so agree with you regarding that process of layering based on the fear of separation. Is it human evolution to stand increasing amounts of separation, or is it wisdom to know that it is our greatest illusion — one from which we must awaken? Or both?

    I’m glad R.D. Laing was also a hero of yours. I saw him speak live one day in my final year as an undergraduate, the year I got hooked on The Politics of Experience. There were two or three hundred people in the lecture hall and he sat alone in a chair on stage.

    One could say he didn’t woo the crowd with oratory — that would be massive understatement. In fact, Laing often sat quiet for long periods after being asked a question by a member of the audience. The college crowd grew increasingly restless with this pattern, as if his silences kept pointing them to interior territory they were not yet prepared to acknowledge, let alone explore. Some walked away thinking him as mad as the people he described in this books. It was thrilling to see an iconoclast at work in his element. (And maybe those who considered him mad were almost right).

    What impressed me most deeply was the idea that our notions of madness were all wound up in a “moral view,” as if we actually knew ourselves better and therefore had a right to judge.

    Thank you, Louise. I love your comments and am grateful for your generous assessment of this post.

    All the best

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