idealism and realism meeting in the actual


“All men dream: but not equally.

Those who dream in the dark recesses of the night awake in the day to find all was vanity.

But the dreamers of day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, and make it possible.”

T.E. Lawrence


“On stormy nights they both dreamt intensively, violently – they often drowned.”

Heat and Light by Ellen Van Neerven


“What use is idealism when the ideals are false ones?”



Hope, optimism, dreaming, even idealism, seems out of vogue these days. “Be realistic,” “nothing is going to change” is the war cry of the general masses or, at minimum, the cynical few. This is the real crisis we face. For the truth is more often than we like to admit our idealistic visions and dreams actually come to fruition, in some form or fashion, in the real world. and what that means is less idealism and less dreaming creates a reduced chance of real progress.

I will say its weird, at least to me, in that how we view people, who is essential and who will be valued <not the same>, is often also the way we view some idealistic thinking and dreams. Ideals and dreams are essential and of value <although not all are created equal>. Now. I am going to focus on business, but the lessons within are also ones of society too. Just ponder it all as you read along.

It was Mary Parker Follett who discussed, in Community is a Process, idealism and realism meeting “in the actual.”

The actual is complex. Shit. “Actual” could simply be complexity itself. Business demands navigating complexity BY AND THROUGH a combination of idealism and realism. We can talk about sensemaking and choice making and embracing uncertainty, but the weapons we wield as we wander through complexity is idealism and realism. Sure. We also focus on greed and profit when the truth is the motives of business are numerous and complex. We want profit and yet we work for self-development, working together, service, completion, progress, esteem, craftsmanship, creation, etc. This is another extrapolation of Mary Parker Follett’s law of the situationwhere each situation has its own order and own complex mix of motives. Idealism, realism and ‘in the actual’ are all part of the weave of complexity of which any group of people working together as well as any individual ‘doing’ will interact with their own weave of motives. Simply saying it is ‘greed’ or ‘just a paycheck’ is lazy. Work is more complex and people are more complex and even the connection between idealism and realism is complex.

And maybe that is why I now suggest an ideology of incrementalism is fraught with peril. While on the positive side it offers potential consistent positive progress on the downside it can be representative of putting off important things until it’s too late to do anything about them. Incrementalism is the worst of both idealism and realism. It sacrifices the best of both while promising the best of nothing.

“The remarkable monotony of the proposed solutions throughout our recorded history testifies to the elemental simplicity of the matter. Generally speaking, they always amount to seeking shelter from actions calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end”

Hannah Arendt

Ok. I believe every business has an ambition. In fact. I believe every business has different ambitions all at the same time – money, morals, size, Purpose, etc. that ambition can come in any size but it will always own some combination of idealism and realism. That specials sauce combination is theirs and they hope to attain it or aspire to reach it. it is their ‘hope’ of what can be.

To me.

All hope to me should be grounded in some sense of idealism and reality.

I, frankly, don’t understand when people suggest you cannot have both.

I, frankly, don’t understand when people suggest you cannot have both idealism and realism.

I, frankly, don’t understand when people suggest you shouldn’t have aspects of both hope & pragmatism, possibilities and pragmatism and idealism & realism.

We should want both AND demand both. It is reaching for the stars and reaching realistically. It is keeping your feet in the clouds and, yet, head on the ground.

But that’s how I think.

I think you can be both idealistic and realistic.

I think it is possible to offer a sense of a difficult path forward without creating a larger sense of ‘doom or Armageddon’ to create the sense of urgency which we often deem necessary in order to inspire real action.

And, inevitably, that is what this is all about.

How to inspire people not just to inspire, but to take action?

How to inspire larger ideas and larger actions and the smaller steps inbetween?

This is a tightrope all business people walk.

The difficulty on this tightrope is that there will always be people debating, and criticizing, while you walk on this tight rope. They will argue whether the ambition is big enough. They will argue whether the ambition isn’t small enough. They will argue we need more radical change. They will argue we need less radical change. Shit. They will argue we need no change moving forward, but rather reverse some of the changes made.

And you know what?

Some of that, in all of that, is right. Some of the past is awful and some of the decisions we will make for the future, and in the future, will be awful. Conversely, some of all of that will, well, not be awful.

To suggest that there are easy answers or that the steps forward are clear and simple is stupid. Stupid and foolish.

Just to be clear. Within the “Idealism and Realism” debate can be found the constructive decision which any leader tries to find their own course in leading. We debate all of this shit in our own heads and then we debate it in conference rooms and boardrooms every week. This debate, simplistically, are the doubts that reside between idealism and realism.

We are responsible for past decisions and, yet, try to unburden ourselves so that we can make progress.

Simplistically, just because I <maybe> made an awful decision in the past doesn’t mean I will make an awful decision in the future.

Simplistically, just because I maybe offer a hopeful idealistic decision for the future doesn’t mean it is a realistic decision for now.

Simplistically, just because I try and slow everybody down on some idealistic discussion shouldn’t suggest I am any more ‘canny or wise’ than everybody else let alone the person who offers the idealistic hope that people may gravitate toward — it just suggests that maybe I am trying to balance it all with reality <and maybe incorporate the fact that, pragmatically, I would like to incorporate some possibilities for people today & tomorrow>.

I will suggest, no, I will tell you the harsh truth getting good shit done within ANY size ambition is hard.

Getting shit done means balancing overreach and under reach.

Balancing possibilities and pragmatism.

Balancing idealism and realism.

Balancing the practical and the hope.

Balancing what people think they want and what they need.

Balancing the majority and the minority.

Balancing what is good for one and good for all.

Anything less than that is oversimplification.

Oh. Shit. And then there is context. One can never lose sight of context.

You have to balance the idea, the hopefulness of ‘what could be’, against pragmatically where you have been <what has happened if not what has just happened> as well as where you are.

It is incredibly simplistic to suggest any past decision should be compared to a decision you will make. Just as it would be incredibly simplistic to judge a business leader if they were to take over a large company which was truly heading into a shithole versus a company which had some problems but was, in general, businesswise healthy.

Every transition has its own singular issues. Every situation has its own singular issues. Every business has its own singular issues. And, let’s be clear, every one of those situations has singular problems.

We should all recognize that in the overall life cycle of business problems and opportunities, practical and possibilities, hope & despair, heroes & villains, will appear in different forms – all with the intent to either further our ambitions or steal our ambitions and crush our ideals.

This is not cynical, this is … uhm … reality.

I would suggest reality is navigating idealism and reality mostly by assessing the problems, or obstacles, to your ambition.

Harping on whatever those problems are doesn’t really get you anywhere.

They are what they are.

I could also argue that arguing over idealistic ideas and vision without admitting some pragmatic realism doesn’t really get you anywhere. It is not a binary discussion nor are pragmatism and possibilities, idealism and practical, mutually exclusive.


“Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.”

John Galsworthy


Look. We all hate cynicism, but far too often we confuse it with pragmatism and practicality. I would also suggest we all get tired of pragmatism because, well, far too often it sounds small. But I would also point out that we all not only get tired, but absolutely unequivocally hate, unrealized idealism. “Large” unrealized equals zero, nothing, nada. People don’t like a zero, nothing, nada no matter how large the zero, nothing, nada is.

Neither option, looked upon in isolation, is attractive or likeable.

And you know what? We all know in our heads this is a tightrope. We sit down and assess what we have, assess what we could have, assess resources, money, whatever, and figures out, pragmatically, how to get going doing the business of doing business – that desires to attain that ambition.

We may not always get it right and we may not always get done whatever is needed to get done to alleviate the problems, or all the problems, that exist in the here and now. But I would point out that, realistically, you can never alleviate all problems and that problems exist, contextually, no matter if you are idealist or realist, pragmatist or a ‘possibilities driven’, hope or practical person. The only constant is that problems existed to be addressed, exist to address and will exist to address all to eventually be solved ONLY if both idealism & pragmatism and possibilities & the practical are embraced.

Not accepting that as a business truth is foolish.

Not accepting that as a business truth is, in fact, lazy thinking.

Any business ambition demands both idealism and pragmatism. The idealism is the spark of possibilities and imagination while the realism stops you from simply being a ‘dreamer’ or wasting resources tilting at windmills.

Maybe, just maybe, we should be sitting back and thinking about how you can both be idealistic and realistic.

In the end.

I hate almost all binaries but choosing between realism and idealism is the most distasteful to me.

Every business deserves both idealism & realism, possibilities & pragmatism and grander hopes of individual significance. Every business deserves to think, and believe, it can matter – in its family, neighborhood, community, city, state, country or global. Whatever their ‘mattering ambition’ is they deserve the intrinsic motivation found in that ambition – while grounded in some realism.

Once again, let me say, maybe, just maybe, we should stop embracing just idealism, or just realism, and see that optimizing the combination is the path to optimizing the future. And while I typically dislike optimizing (it often feels like compromising) maybe, just maybe, in this case, we should all go into the optimizing “in the actual” through idealism, realism and dreaming. Ponder.

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Written by Bruce