Idealism and Pragmatism, as opposed but complementary and mutually beneficial visions of the World, are eloquently illustrated in Cervantes’ masterpiece “Don Quixote,"acknowledged by many as the first modern novel. However, some literary scholars suggest that the novel should have been entitled “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” for the two main protagonists of this book deserve equal merit and recognition and indeed represent two facets of the personality that, if combined into one, may achieve a perfect equilibrium.
Don Quixote is ethereal, idealistic (sometimes to lunatic extremes), detached from material goods, with a noble figure, tall but skinny, a low-level aristocrat who is victim of delusions of grandeur. "Honor" is the motto that drives him to afford risky, often foolish, actions since he has devoted the rest of his life to the old-fashioned enterprise of restoring chivalry customs.
Sancho Panza, working as Quixote’s esquire for free, is short, has a distinguishable paunch but with his feet on the ground and a distinctive worldly vision. He incarnates the model of pragmatism and looks for chances to move up the social ladder, while taking care for the day-to-day basic needs of the couple, such as lodgings, food and other living arrangements. He even has capitalist instincts, rare in Spanish 16th Century: when he discovers the properties of the supposedly magic balsam of Fierabras that heals whomever drinks it, he wonders how to mass produce it (1).
The two protagonists represent respectively the “ying” and the “yang” and they are one of the most complementary and synergetic couples of world’s literature. Since they represent opposed personalities, maybe living together is not just possible but enjoyable. Furthermore, they respect and profess profound affection for each other regardless their differences and what others may think. A quote from Sancho at the end of the novel is illustrative of this, when he takes upon his own shoulders his companion’s mission after Don Quixote’s death: “Let us take the field in shepherds’ apparel, according to our agreement: who knows, but behind some bush we may find my Lady Dulcinea disenchanted, and a comely sight to see”.
Quixote and Sancho may well characterize the personality poles that many companies need in their top management. In fact, idealism and pragmatism are not easily found together in a single person. Some managers are the embodiment of strategic vision and passion for innovation, whereas others have a marked orientation towards finance and performance. Some are risk-averse and conservative, and well suited for times of crisis, whereas others may drive successfully their organizations in times of growth.
There are many cases of companies where the actual governance was shared by an idealist and a pragmatist, in the Quixote-Sancho fashion. A paradigmatic example of this was the initial management at Philips, the Dutch electronics conglomerate, when during the first decades of expansion the company was co-driven by the two founding brothers; one embodying the innovative and production drive and the other the orientation to market. This synergetic polarity originally inspired the matrix structure that the corporation adopted and maintained operative until the 1980’s.
Another example was Apple at the time when Steve Jobs hired John Sculley, then CEO of PepsiCo, to head the Cupertino-based company. Jobs intention of combining his idealism, strategic vision and perfectionism with Sculley’s marketing talent and performance-oriented style was sound and potentially beneficial. However, we know that the tandem did not work together well, and that the power struggle between Jobs and Sculley ended with the exit of the former from the company he founded. Indeed, Job’s quixotic traits, his erratic and temperamental attitude — some witnesses even referred to a sort of reality distortion (2) — came to the extreme at that time. Unfortunately, Sculley did not prove to be a supportive Sancho Panza either.
Given your past experience and the feedback that you get from your colleagues and coaches, do you consider yourself an idealist or a pragmatist manager, a Quixote or a Sancho? You probably combine elements of the two, but I guess that there is a useful piece of advice for managers if Cervantes’ novel is interpreted from the perspective explained here. If you run a company and feel naturally inclined to one of the described poles, you should better counteract the undesirable effects of this inertia in your company and appoint a senior manager with a complementary profile to keep healthy dialectics. Steve Jobs, who acknowledged his past error, did this during his successful second mandate as CEO at Apple.
“Did not I assure you, they were no other than windmills? Indeed, nobody could mistake them for anything else, but one who has windmills in his own head?” tells Sancho to Don Quixote after the ludicrous attack the latter undertakes against the standing constructions, believing they were fierce giants. Was Sancho right or didn’t he understand his master’s vision? Well, we may stand before two conceptions of reality that are not put to the test until actions are performed and evaluated in the long term.
(1) See Carole Slade’s “Introduction” to Barnes & Noble Classics edition “Don Quixote”(New York, NY, 2004) p. xvii.
(2) Andrew Hertzfeld: “Reality Distortion Field”, http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=Reality_Distortion_Field.txt
Image: Andreas Achenbach (1815-1910), Don Quixote and Sancho Panza