Renaissance Workers – The Pragmatic Visionary

I was having a conversation with an associate/friend/public service advocate and we were talking about what it would take to make progress within his current work environment – how could his employer (or his fellow employees) help progress the vision and strategy of the organisation, when that progress kept getting caught up in black holes of policy, fear, empire-building and the great unknown?

I described to him what I felt was one piece of that puzzle – individuals with influence (whether at the top or the bottom) that were both pragmatic and visionary. Then I stopped for a second, looked at what I had written and laughed, thinking I had just created an oxymoron – “pragmatic visionary”. However, upon further thought I realised that this indeed what is required for progress and success in his particular environment, and in many others I encounter these days.

How does an individual become both pragmatic and visionary? Doesn’t one cancel the other? Can one person be both in the same role? Well, of course. We’re just not used to thinking that way. Typically, we associate “visionary” with blue sky, innovation, the future state. Conversely, pragmatism is rooted in strong operational foundations, association with the practical, steady-handed realism.

In reality, the twain do meet. I thought harder about it and realised that many of the folks I associated with the more successful change programs, informal or otherwise, were exactly this new breed of worker – pragmatic visionaries. Caught neither in the minutia of operations or the headiness of vision, these individuals have struck a chord of balance that resides somewhere in between, incorporating the grand ideas into routinized process, and injecting some reality into the wild blue yonder.

Just “thinking big” is not enough to be successful. Just delivering on schedule is also not enough.This is more than just a practical project manager that finds the recipe for implementation. This is a role that is savvy enough to cherry pick the business wins and understand the values of all interested parties to create a formula that strikes the right chord with everyone and threatens noone.

The mature skills that these individuals have in common include most, if not all of the social capabilities that we have discussed. They are all great communicators (and, paired with some experience in the field, great negotiators), they collaborate without fear, they constantly seek out new and innovative ways to approach a problem, they trust each other and their partners, they are actively engaged with each other and other communities of practice/clients/partners, and their own objectives are aligned with their peers and those of the organisation for which they work.

The pragmatic visionary is the ‘Renaissance Man’ of the workplace – skilled with an arsenal of tools and tactics to maneuver the soft side of any organisation, gluing together all the pieces whether they be floating above in lofty clouds, or firmly anchored in the ground by heavy chains. Given that these elements are reality for most organisations, these personalities are rapidly becoming the only link to an organisation becoming agile and flexible while figuring out how to remove those chains.

Have you met a pragmatic visionary? How were they able to achieve what others couldn’t? How did they reach this level of maturity? What was their role “on paper” in the organisation?

2 Responses

  1. Interesting post Steph. I think there’s an extra piece that the “Renaissance Women and Men” you identify as pragmatic visionaries have: the need to speak up. What made da Vinci who he is today was his audacity – not in his designs nor his transcenent drawing hand. da Vinci pitched his first gig to the rulers of Florence, entirely uninvited. He saw a problem, believed himself to have a solution, and wrote himself a letter of reference. Ironically, he didn’t fix the problem he proposed to solve, but by hiring him Medici solved problems he didn’t even know he had.

    Pragmatic visionaries as you describe them are willing to put themselves on the line to really own a problem. That’s what makes it work, I think – the problems of the organization are your own.

  2. Yes, very good point, Bo. That missing piece may be self-confidence or the breakdown of the fear of hierarchy that I mentioned in a previous post with the new millenials or maybe it’s just a better sense of one’s place in the world (as an active, impactful member). Either way, I believe it’s a “soft skill” that must be matured and developed. Unfortunately, it still takes some bravado to own a problem in many environments today.

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