06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Leadership Training: What Is Real and What Is Illusion?

What is real and what is illusion? Knowing the difference is a grail that humanity has been on for millennia. What is the nature of reality and how does it appear different than illusion. The boom that we all thought was based on fundamentals was in fact based on market value manipulation. Someone will seem nice and turnout to be very unpleasant. A misguided business strategy can trap a company into an illusion that will destroy its position in the market. Knowing what is real is essential for all leaders.

Words and Thought

On a basic level, words and thoughts are the shallowest level of reality, and can often lead to dramatic illusions, like people talking to you that do not exist anywhere but in your mind. At best, thoughts describe reality and point to reality. Of all thoughts, conceptual thoughts are the most removed from reality. For example: love, hate, right, wrong, God, Heaven, Hell, etc., all have very different meanings to different people. Concrete words like granite are the most descriptive, but only if you have seen granite.

Traveling Into Reality

A thought is only a shadow of reality. Reality is always brighter and more nuanced than any thought or description. Most of the essential realities are beyond description. Like the feeling of being in "The Zone" in sports or music, feeling the flow of nature while walking deep in the woods, or transcendent experiences that take your consciousness deep into the vast mystery on the edge of the formless. These all have distinct feelings, which are missing with words alone. There is a feeling when you are close to a reality.

The Difference Is In The Feeling

When I was working as a leadership consultant and coach to Don Ross, the Chairman and CEO of New York Life, during the summer of 1987, many people were coming to me questioning the CEO's actions. He had asked the investment department to slowly move all investments out of the stock market into conservative investments. This frustrated his investment team because the stock market was at an all-time high and their competitors were using "High Yield Bonds" and stocks to create gains. They wanted to play in the stock market and the CEO was telling them to step back.

Many came to me, as the CEO's coach, to suggest I persuade him of the foolishness of his actions. I explained that I was his leadership coach and had little knowledge of the financial markets, but encouraged them to speak directly to the CEO. However, no matter how people pleaded, he would not change course. Several key players resigned and went to more "progressive" companies.

In October, 1987, while I was on site, the market crashed. It was the biggest crash since the Great Depression. But the CEO had moved most of the companies investments out of the stock market and had not invested in any "High Yield Bonds," known later as "Junk Bonds." The CEO was now considered a genius. The financial gain was enormous.

A week or so later, I asked the CEO how he knew to pull all of the company's investments out of the stock market three months before the October 1987 crash. He said, "I just knew it couldn't last." Everyone in his world thought he was wrong, yet he had the wisdom and courage to do what he felt was right.

He later went on to explain that, as Chairman and CEO, he was continuously bombarded with "experts" trying to convince him of different strategic directions. Each had incredible credentials and a good story, yet each recommended different directions. The only tool he had to make the final decision was his instinct, or intuition. He said, "Whenever I have gone against my intuition, I have regretted it."

Don explained to me, "The key to wisdom is to know the difference between your wild hopes and fears and common sense, intuition or true wisdom." They often seem the same, but they are not. There is a distinct difference in the feeling. One comes from your thinking about your own thoughts, and the other comes from a direct experience of reality. Great leaders know when they are lost in their conditioned thoughts and when their thoughts come from insight into reality. Knowing "the difference" takes practice.

In this case the gains were in the billions. Those gains were entirely dependent on the CEO knowing the cognitive frameworks that most believed in were not reality.