Leadership: Idealism vs. Realism

Idealism vs. Realism

Balancing the emotional, psychological, and empirical aspects of what it takes to be a strong leader is always at play in the minds of those who study leadership.

For me, I recently took a journey through the aspects of what it means to balance idealism and realism.

In his newest book, “Poke The Box,” Seth Godin shares this thought

“Sooner or later, many idealists transform themselves into disheartened realists who believe that giving up is the same thing as being realistic.”

Godin is specifically talking about the idea of initiative; starting something new instead of accepting the way things are.

I’ve been thinking about his statement as it might relate to leadership.

Idealism can be defined in many ways.

ide·al·ism noun \ī-ˈdē-(ə-)ˌliz-əm

  • According to dictionary.com,  idealism is “the cherishing or pursuit of high or noble principles, purposes, goals, etc.”
  • Relating to the fine arts, idealism is defined as, “treatment of subject matter in a work of art in which a mental conception of beauty or form is stressed.”
  • In philosophy, the definition is “any system or theory that maintains that the real is of the nature of thought…the tendency to represent things in an ideal form, or as they might or should be rather than as they are, with emphasis on values.”

It is not a stretch to apply the definition of idealism to leadership.

In general, leaders cherish high principles such as integrity, compassion, commitment.  Leaders pursue noble purposes and goals.  They inspire followers toward a shared mission and vision.

Leaders see the best possibilities, working to create a new future therein.

Leaders represent the best to their followers; what we could be, what we can do, imagining the best and making it happen.

The Other Hand

Reducing the loftiness of idealism down to more tangible form, one can look at the other hand called realism.

re·al·ism noun \ˈrē-ə-ˌli-zəm\

  • In the literal senserealism is defined as an “interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, speculative; the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.”
  • In fine arts, it is “the treatment of forms, colors, space, etc., in such a manner as to emphasize their correspondence to… the ordinary visual experience.”
  • In philosophy, realism is “the doctrine that objects of sense perception have an existence independent of the act of perception.”

Realism has an entirely different feel, even while simply reading the definition.  It is not as optimistic.  It is certainly not visionary. It dwells in what is rather than what is possible.

Slightly varying a line from George Bernard Shaw‘s play Back to Methusalah, Robert F. Kennedy once said,

Some men see things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

The first part of the statement is how a realist might think.  The second part is the idealism of a leader.  It demonstrates vision, inspiration, confidence.

Looking back on Godin’s quote, does being a realist lead one to simply accept the way things are?  Is being a realist leader a form of giving up?

What do you think?  Does it take a sense of idealism to be an effective leader?  Can a realist also be an inspirational leader?  Or, is there some middle ground?  Please share your thoughts by adding a comment.


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Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.

Image Sources: blog.ganderson.us

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Rod Brazier on March 24, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Great post Eleanor!

    It seems to me that idealism and realism are not either/or concepts in the context of leadership.

    Good leaders have BOTH the capacity to appreciate reality, AND to envision a preferred (ideal) state that engages the hearts and minds of followers.

    What concerns me, based on my experience in leadership development (LD) practice, are those who enter into LD “possessed” by the notion that “things are as they are” and can’t be changed.

    I find it important to shift (as best I can) these “realists” first into “possiblists” by challenging their “nothing can change” mental model and demonstrating that change is possible — even in their organizations — with different mind sets and tool sets.

    Only when these aspiring leaders perceive possibility can they begin to grasp the ideal in “real” ways.

  2. Eleanor Biddulph on March 24, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Rod – thanks so much for reading the post and sharing your comments. I love the term “possiblist!” A realist would be comfortable in the world of demonstrated proof, and that could lead to a mind shift towards seeing other possibilities.

  3. LaRae Quy on March 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Hi Eleanor,

    Your article is very thought provoking. Too many times the idealist in us gets squelched and we end up “settling.” I call myself an optimistic realist – it’s important to have a firm handle on reality but I also think the world is a contest that I can win . . .

  4. Eleanor Biddulph on March 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

    LaRae – thank you for adding your thoughts. I think it is a delicate balance – being realistic enough to know what is possible, but being idealistic enough to inspire even bigger things!

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  6. Check-the-Box Leadership « Linked 2 Leadership on April 13, 2011 at 12:06 am

    […] Leadership: Idealism vs. Realism (linked2leadership.com) […]

  7. DIANE on January 17, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Hello Eleanor,

    I find really interesting your article.Finding and keeping the right balance between the idealism and realism make us worthy to be called
    LEADERS indeed…which is a demanding job, but utterly rewarding.

  8. Mike on April 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    The ideas, in this article, about what an idealist personality type is, is poor and misleading. Using dictionary meanings for idealism tells me the author has done no real study on personality types and was lazy or just trying to prove their own point because they are an idealist. It seems only idealists are agreein with this. Idealists, as a personality type, make poor leaders. Idealist personality types are better suited to be be teachers, counselors and healers (in a reserved role). Good leaders are more of a guardian type personality, those who will be stoic about the present, skeptical about the future (and therefore better prepared for supply shortages) and focused on concrete materials. Idealists share a cooperative spirit of using tools with the leader types, but not the concrete use of words. Realists are rationalists, which make good engineers and scientists – an idealist only shares in common the abstract use of words, but not the utilitarian approach to tools.

    • Eleanor Biddulph on April 13, 2012 at 7:51 am

      Mike, I appreciate your comments. My goal in providing multiple definitions for each word was to inspire thought and dialogue. Thank you for contributing to both!

      • Mike on April 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm

        If that’s the case, then the article is unfocused.

        A leader needs to be focused on concrete issues of material managment and maintain follow through (the guardian type). The leader is always focused on concrete issues and follow through – that’s their personality type. They also take personal responsibility for the follow through.

        Throwing noodles at a wall and hoping something sticks is great for sitting around in meetings and just talking and having a good time, but who really follows through afterwards? Everyone becomes fantastic noodle throwers. And why should anyone follow the plan, if the original group of brainstormers haven’t been keeping up with the company resources for the long run? Those brainstormers just want to sit around in meetings.

        Understanding personality types is important and more relevant to placing good company leaders than lots of people talking about ideas. Ideas are abstract, but in the end companies (and people) need concrete resources. In the end, managing resources is an unthankful task and rather boring (but necessary).

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