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.

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6 Leadership Lessons from Rudolph

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

‘Tis the season! One annual tradition in my house is gathering to watch Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. This year, I watched it through the lens of leadership.

Imagine Burl Ives, as the voice of Sam the Snowman, applying the lessons of Rudolph to the workplace…

6 Lessons in Leadership

Scenario 1

Rudolph first apppears as the new deer at the playground. The other reindeer notice Rudolph’s shiny nose as it glows, and begin to laugh at him and call him names. Meanwhile, at Elf School, Hermey the Elf is also being ridiculed because he wants to be a dentist. Hermey has lots of ideas about how to make sure the dolls have healthy teeth, which, of course, the other elves think is just silly.

Lesson #1:

As leaders, we need to be in tune with how new employees are being welcomed into the team. Hopefully, we’ve created an environment that welcomes new people bringing new experiences, new ideas, and new skills to help the organization be great. Diversity of all kinds must be embraced, not driven away. Ideas should be respectfully heard, not ridiculed.

Scenario 2

The head elf even tells Hermey, “You’ll never fit in! Now you come to elf practice, learn how to wiggle your ears, chuckle warmly, go hee-hee and ho-ho, and important stuff like that. A dentist! Good grief! ” Soon, both Rudolph and Hermey are singing the same song; “Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. You can’t fire me, I quit. Seems I don’t fit in.”


As leaders, it is important that we have the right people in the right positions, matching an individual’s skills and desires with job function and team purpose. We also need to recognize when a team member shows an aptitude for another role. A good leader will help that person reach their career goal, rather than forcing them to be in a role they are clearly not a fit for.

Scenario 3

Rudolph, feeling rejected, runs away and meets up with Hermey, on the road after quitting elf school. The two of them then meet Yukon Cornelius, the prospector who also doesn’t fit in with the general population. All three set out to try a find a place where they can fit in.

Rudolph, Hermey and Cornelius come upon the Island of Misfit Toys. There’s Charlie-in-the-box, Spotted Elephant, and more. Charlie is the sentry who welcomes them to the island. It is clear, as he bounces about, that he can be a great toy. The only thing “wrong” with him is his unexpected name. Spotted Elephant is cute and cuddly. He would make some little girl or boy a wonderful gift, except that his outside isn’t the color people would expect.

Lesson #3:

As leaders, we need an awareness of any pre-judgments we are attaching to people. Someone might not look or act the way we expect them to, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. A team member might not have the background we expected, but they might still be well-skilled for the job at hand. Are we minimizing people because of our ideas, rather than welcoming them for theirs? Are we treating them as mis-fits, just because they are a little different?

Scenario 4

After a time, Rudolph, Hermey, and Cornelius set out to tell Santa about the Island of Misfit Toys. They promise the toys that they will help Santa see that even though the toys aren’t what people might expect, they can still be loved and enjoyed by a needy child.

Lesson #4:

As leaders, are we in tune when our team members “manage up?” Sometimes, we don’t realize how our own behavior or ideas impact others. We can be even better leaders if we are open to the wisdom and observations of others. The success of the leader and the team is interdependent and we need to welcome feedback that is shared with us.

Scenario 5

As we all know, the story ends well. One foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realizes that Rudolph’s nose, so bright, is just the thing to guide the sleigh that important night. Once the leader embraces Rudolph, so does the rest of the reindeer team. The sleigh stops at the island to pick up the misfit toys, and drops them into the homes of needy children who will love them dearly.

Lesson #5:

As leaders, we set the example. If we view a new project with enthusiasm, so will the team. If we see a challenge as an opportunity, the team will follow our lead. If we seek out ways to use the strengths of our individual followers, they will be embraced by the rest of the team for their uniqueness, rather than ridiculed for it.

Scenario 6

And, then, there’s the Abominable Snowman. Throughout the story, he is feared. He’s big, loud, grouchy, and mean. However, it turns out that he has a major toothache! After Hermey uses his dental knowledge and pulls the Snowman’s bad tooth, the monster becomes a big old softy. His height is perfect for adding the star to the top of the Christmas tree.

Lesson #6:

As leaders, we all have experienced that really difficult employee. Sometimes, there just dosn’t seem to be anyway to break though a tough exterior. They might be rude, disruptive, attention-seeking, poor performers. Or, they might be someone with a lot of potential who is in some kind of pain – physical or emotional. If we take the time to have an honest conversation with them, coming from a place of caring about their success, we just might find that what is “wrong” can be made “right.” This may not always be the case, but just imagine if your abominable snowman ended up hanging the star on your tree.

Can you see leadership lessons in any other holiday tales? I hope you’ll add a comment and share them. Have a wonderful holiday and successful new year of leadership and growth!


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Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
 is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.
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Authentic Leaders: Putting Our Masks Away

the Joker Mask

If your house is anything like mine, tucked away somewhere in the attic or the basement is a Halloween box.

This week, you are probably repacking the spooky decorations, scary costumes, masks and accessories; storing them away with another year’s trick-or-treat memories.

Leadership Trick-or-Treat

Some of us, though, keep our masks on all year-long.  We hide our real selves from the people around us.  We think that if people really knew us, they might not think that we deserve the positions of leadership we have.  Our masks are not made of latex or plastic, but of insecurity, fear, and mistrust.

The Mask of Insecurity

People who are insecure worry they might not be “good enough” to face challenges that come up in everyday life.

They might feel helpless to solve problems or face conflict.  Insecure people often suffer from low self-esteem or lack self-confidence.These feelings run counter to the self-assurance needed to be a strong leader.

Being confident in oneself supports an environment where the opinions of others are welcomed, rather than being viewed as a threat.

Livestrong.com offers some great tips to help identify and overcome insecurity.

If you are someone you know wears the mask of insecurity, read the article for some helpful hints to bravely put that mask away for good.

The Mask of Fear

Often times, fear can keep us from being fully open to the people around us.  We may fear specific tasks, such as giving feedback or dealing with conflict.We might fear making the wrong decision or losing our influence. Some people might fear making a mistake while trying to make a difference in a new leadership role.

In his article, The Leader’s Journey From Fear to Self-Confidence, Arthur Petty reminds us that removing the mask of fear is an important step in growth and succeeding as leaders.

Followers don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do expect us to face our fears, learn, and improve.

The Mask of Mistrust

We’ve all heard that great leaders inspire trust. However, trust is a two-way street. The leader must also demonstrate trust in the people she is surrounded by. We must trust their motivations, their abilities, and their loyalties.

A leader’s trust in her followers motivates them communicate openly, to perform at peak levels, even going above and beyond in times of crisis.

If, however, a leader hides behind the mask of distrust, then he creates an environment based on fear and survivorship, not mutual support and success.

Putting the Masks Away

If leaders put their masks away and dwell in authenticity, their leadership and followership relationships will be strengthened.  In his article Authentic Leadership, Kevin Cashman describes these five touchstones of authenticity:

Know Yourself Authentically

Instead of focusing on finding the right partner, friend or co-worker, focus on being the right one.

Listen Authentically

Authentic listening opens the platform for true synergy and team effectiveness

Express Authentically

Share your true voice in words and actions

Appreciate Authentically

Appreciation energizes people and makes people want to exceed their goals and perceived limits

Serve Authentically

When we move from control to service, we acknowledge that we’re not the sole origin of achievement

Even with the most expensive Halloween costumes, the masks are never as good as the real thing.  Your team would much rather know the authentic you than the insecurity, fear, and mistrust you might be hiding behind.  You and your team will benefit once those masks are put away for good.


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


Dog Days of Summer

The dog days of summer are typically the hottest, most humid, most uncomfortable days of the season.

Usually, the dog days occur in August.  Dog days also refers to a time period that is stagnant due to the heat, and very little progress is made on any projects around the home.

As you think about the dog days, consider it in relation to your role as a leader.

Leadership Dog Days

Do you ever experience the dog days of leadership?

Are there days or even weeks when you just don’t feel like you’re making a difference?  Are your followers stuck in a mid-year slump?  Is your team failing to make progress toward goals?

A leader cannot provide motivation for each individual member of a team.  However, the leader can create an environment in which team members can use their self-motivation to work toward team goals.  The U.S. Army Handbook shares this definition of motivation and the leader’s role:

A person’s motivation is a combination of desire and energy directed at achieving a goal. It is the cause of action.

Influencing someone’s motivation means getting them to want to do what you know must be done.

On his website, Don Clark provides a narrative of the Army’s views on motivation.  If you and your team are stuck in the dog days of leadership, consider my summary thoughts on his key points, then go to his website for more.

Allow the needs of your team to coincide with the needs of your organization.

The root of motivation is satisfying a need.  Get to know the needs of your people and make sure they are aligned with the needs of your company.  Dog days can be conquered by making progress toward shared goals.

Reward good behavior.

Rewards that are timely, sincere, and personal oftentimes reinforce appropriate actions.  Be sure to also reward strong effort to keep it moving continually toward expectations.

Set the example.

Model the type of attitude, commitment, and performance you want to see.  Nothing sends a stronger message that the behavior your team observes in you.  If your team is stuck in the dog days, ask yourself  this: Are they modeling what they see in you?

Develop morale and esprit de corps.

Be aware of your impact on the mental, emotional, and spiritual state of team members.  Team spirit is what people identify with; do people want to be part of your team, or do they shy away from it?

Allow your team to be part of the planning and problem solving process.

Involving your team in creative discussions around common goals can pull them out of that dog day funk.  Draw out the energy and harness it for a real purpose.

Look out for your team.

Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge includes encouraging the heart as a vital part of leadership.  Demonstrate that you care about your team members; listen to them, be compassionate, hold them accountable.  Set meaningful and reasonable goals and coach them towards their very best.

Address behaviors of individuals that negatively impact the team.  Reminding your team how much you care about their success – as individuals and as a team – can help them move forward.

Take a good look at yourself and your team.  Are you or they stuck in the dog days?  As their leader, how can you help them make progress?


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

Sometimes the best helping hand you can get is a good, firm push. - Joann Thomas

We often think of the leader as the person out in front, the visionary whom others are inspired by. Followers are close behind, focused on the goal, listening for direction, taking action, moving forward as the leader moves forward.

The above quote reminds us that sometimes, the best leading is done from behind.

Engage Creative Genius

The May 10 edition of the Harvard Business Review includes a post titled “Leading From Behind,” about the impact of today’s economy on leadership styles.  Author Linda Hill notes that today’s successful leaders are those who are skilled at “harnessing people’s collective genius.”

Hill cites two conditions for success:

First, leaders must ensure people in their organizations are willing to innovate. This is fundamentally about building community.

Some leaders refer to this function as “creating a world to which people want to belong.” In these communities, people are valued for who they are and have the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves.

Second, leaders must build the organizational capabilities necessary for engaging in the innovation process. The three essential organizational capabilities are:

  • Creative abrasion – The ability to generate ideas through intellectual discourse and discussion
  • Creative agility – The ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, and
  • Creative resolution – The ability to make decisions in an integrative manner

The Right People

In April, Voice of America News also published an article titled Leading From Behind about Nelson Mandela, and the relationship that Time Magazine editor Richard Stengel built with him over a three-year period.  Stengel collaborated on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Road to Freedom, and now his own book about the man, Mandela’s Way: 15 Lessons on Life, Love and Courage.

In the VOA article, Stengel shared this Mandela story:

“Lead from the front is the more conventional kind of leading that we know — getting up on the podium and giving a speech or saying follow me. But leading from the back is a different idea. We used to take these early morning walks in the countryside near where he grew up. He once asked me if I ever herded cattle before. I said, ‘no.’

He said, ‘It’s interesting because there are lessons for leadership because the way you herd cattle is you lead them from behind. You find the most able and smartest cattle and have them lead the way. You empower them.’ He said that’s a good lesson for all of us. You basically have to kind of share the wealth. You have to find people who can execute your vision and ideas.”

The above excerpts are very different in approach, but share the same concept.  A leader does not have to be the person out front leading the charge.

The leader is the person who creates the vision, sets the direction, and then puts the right people in the right position to move the team toward the goal.

Leadership is Influence

Leadership is not a place in line, a box on an org chart, or a title on a business card.

Authentic leadership is the ability to influence a group of people toward a common vision.

That leading can be done from the front, from among the people, or pushing from behind.  A strong leader knows which type of leadership is needed at the moment, and puts the right leadership skills to use.

When have you found leading from behind to be more effective?  What was different in your approach compared to leading from the front? What leading from behind wisdom can you share with our readers?


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Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
 is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.
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Edited by Mike Weppler

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Mentoring: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Do you have a mentor? Or are you actively serving as a mentor for someone else?

As leaders, this is often an informal role we naturally take on. As business professionals, it can also be a very structured and formal career development program.

The Good…

A mentor can be a most positive influence in one’s developing career.  Sharing the wisdom of experience, helping to expand networks, providing direction along a career or education path; these are all common functions of a mentor.  In The Mentor’s Spirit, Marsha Sinetar wrote,

A mentor is a person, guide or a teacher – a keeper of selective wisdoms that we hope to gain.

Sinetar went on to describe virtue as “a mentor’s most powerful tool.” Virtue is revealed in the integrity that mentors bring to the mentoring relationship.  This, in turn, opens the door for trust.

Trust establishes the safe environment in which honest self-reflection can take place.  Only then can growth occur.

The Bad…

When the mentoring relationship does not work out, it can negatively affect on both the mentor and the protege.  This may depend on the circumstances surrounding the “break-up.”  On May 24, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article titled, When Mentoring Goes Bad, written by Dawn E. Chandler and Lilian Eby.

There are some fairly ordinary reasons for mentoring relationships to detour from the original path, or even end altogether.  A personal life event such as a major health challenge can certanly have an impact.  A job change or move can force a major change or an ending.  Sometimes, the two people simply find that, after giving it a go, their personalities or values don’t quite mesh.  An amicable end can be agreed to and both parties move on.

Ideally though, mentors and proteges are carefully matched for personality, skills, goals, and communciation styles.

The Ugly…

Sometimes, however, mentoring relationships can go very, very wrong.  The WSJ article identifies several ways this can happen. Among them are:

Neglect of Proteges

A mentor who is not committed and actively participating in the protege’s growth – perhaps due to their own career distractions – can have long lasting, damaging results.  A protege may suffer from a bruised ego and abandonment. They may refuse to seek help later on, and may end up leaving the organization in disappointment over promises unfulfilled.

Mentors who Manipulate

The article describes this challenge as most common when the mentor and protege are in the same reporting tree.  A mentor without the purest motivation may succumb to manipulation tactics such as inappropriate delegation of work, politicking, or even tyranny.

Proteges who Manipulate or Sabotage

Although the protege is more often not in the “power” position, they can certainly cause damage to the mentor’s reputation.  In a quest for power, or perhaps as revenge for being passed over for a promotion, untruths or other actions can be initiated by a dissatisfied protege.

On the other hand…

Positive leadership behaviors can make all the difference.

The WSJ article goes on to describe how mentoring relationships work the best.  There must be a structure and plan around it.

  • Establish a goal
  • Develop an action plan
  • Build in progress checkpoints

Additionally, it is always a good idea to share and set expectations of both parties, and to periodically review these. A discussion of expectations might include an orientation program to clearly understand their respective roles. The presence of integrity and the development of trust is also key.  Lastly, some advance discussion of how the relationship will end helps to make that future process smoother for all involved.

Do you have mentoring lessons learned that you can share? What worked?  What didn’t?  What are your experiences?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
 is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Edited by Mike Weppler

Image Sources: fc09.deviantart.net

Wanted: Good Followers

We’re all about good leadership, right?  Guess what?  Without followers, there are no leaders.  And, more to the point, good leaders need really good followers.

FastCompany published an article on April 1 written by Nancy Lublin titled “Do Something: Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys.”  Many of her points really hit home with me.

Sexy Topic

Leadership is today’s sexy business topic. The critical topic, though, is followership. The managers and supervisors who make the vision a reality. The front line employees who do the “heavy lifting.” There is no successful leader without good followers doing the hard work.

What makes a good follower? Lublin suggests it is the intelligent follower.

Good followers ask good questions. They probe their leaders.  They crunch numbers to ensure that their visionary boss’s gorgeous plan actually works.

Imagine, she states, if, instead of everyone wanting to be the CEO, we valued people in the jobs that best fit their skills. Imagine if we acknowledged great performance at every level, not just at the top.  Imagine if being a great supervisor was a goal, not a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Know the Recipe

At ChangingMinds.org, there is a comprehensive study of followership.  In order to determine what makes a great leader, the organization decided to closely examine followers.  By understanding what motivates people to follow others, we can learn what characteristics are needed to develop good leaders.  As the site put it:

Leaders create Followers create Leaders.

Part of the study identifies five key reasons people follow, ranked in levels from negative to positive, from coercion to complete commitment.  Below is a summary, but click here to read about each level in more detail.

  • Fear of Retribution: “If I don’t follow, I may lose my job!”
  • Blind Hope: “We must do something.  I hope this works!”
  • Faith in the Leader: “What a great person.  If anyone knows the answer, they do!”
  • Intellectual Agreement: “What a good idea.  That makes real sense.”
  • Buying the Vision: “What a brilliant idea.  I don’t care who thought of it.”

People will not follow us just because we ask them to.  We need to give them a good reason to follow.  We need to inspire with a clear vision.  We need to unite them around a meaningful goal.  There must be a purpose for their followership.

What about leaders who are also followers?

Most of us follow someone.  Colonel Phillip S. Melinger, USAF, wrote an (undated) article titled The Ten Rules of Good Followership.  In the introduction, he noted:

…how does one become a good follower?  This is a responsibility no less important than that of leadership – in fact, it enables good leadership – yet, it is often ignored.  Moreover, it is likely that all of us will be followers more often that we will be leaders.

While the article was written with a military hierarchy in mind, the rules do translate to leader-followers everywhere.  Among Melinger’s ten rules are:

  • Don’t blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy; your job is to support, not undermine.
  • Fight with your boss if necessary, but do it in private.  Avoid embarrassing situations and never reveal to others what was discussed.
  • Do your homework.  Give your boss all the information needed to make a decision; anticipate questions.
  • If you see a problem, fix it.  Don’t worry about who would have gotten the blame and who will now get the credit.

In your experience, what makes a great follower?Have you observed patterns in good followership behaviors?  Have you been given feedback from followers that influenced your leadership development?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
 is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Image Sources: 1.bp.blogspot.com


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