Excuses, Excuses: The Pragmatist

“In an ideal world, there’d be no mustard on my chin. I agree with you, but we have to deal with the practical realities of the real world.”

A client I’d worked with for years was moving a lot of meetings. That’s often a red flag. She was busy, but she was always busy. Something else was going on. She was direct with her feedback, and that’s what allowed for a transformative conversation:

Client: “Here’s my challenge with you as a coach and my turn to challenge you. You are one of the most brilliant and inspiring thought leaders I have ever met. My core issue is that this can end up feeling detached from reality, which then makes the actual tactical coaching sometimes fall short. It has to come back to what will actually be effective to get my team to operate at a higher level.”

Josef: “Well, I’m flattered, thank you, and I appreciate the challenge. The first thing to clarify is the approach. I’m helping people to change who they are so they do things differently. You guys are still trying to stay the same people and do things differently.”

Client: “Yeah, I think that is fair.”

Josef: “Most coaches help people stay the same and perform better. It’s seriously limited. Think about the number of people in your organization right now who are addicted to overwhelm. How well can they perform while they remain that way?”

Client: “I get it, but what I am weighing is the fact that a lot of what the team needs is basic stuff like ‘hold people accountable for their objectives’ which can and does happen through emergent change–by working on yourself to understand why you struggle with direct and difficult conversations–but then there is just seeing it modeled.”

Josef: “Is it true that you need it modeled? Does your team not know how to do it?”

Client: “We know how to do it, though we could be a heck of a lot better.”

Josef: “My guess is that having it modeled for you makes it more comfortable to try it more often.”

This was a semi-unintentional trap I set, because often needing to be comfortable to try new things is a problem, not a solution. Her response is telling, especially since we’ve talked about the aversion to discomfort as a cultural theme many times before. Given that, you’d want to hear a nod to the compulsive need for comfort here, which was conspicuously absent.

Client: “It does for everyone, no doubt.”

Josef: “That’s the problem: the company-wide aversion to discomfort, remember? What would it be like if everyone in your organization embraced discomfort 50% more?”

Client: “It’s the messiness of the application. That’s the challenge.”

The aversion to messiness proves the point about avoiding discomfort.

Josef: “A challenge perhaps, but a necessary part of change that can’t be avoided. The path to greatness in anything is that people practice through the mess regardless. Besides, messy conversations are vulnerable and that’s one of the things that’s missing in your business.”

Client: “Yeah, but I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really think there is a total lack of trying.”

This a defense against something not said by me, so likely an unconscious part of the client who sees there is, in fact, a significant lack of trying. The client is projecting one half of their internal conflict onto me. This internal conflict is what is creating the confusion between real effort that includes forays into discomfort versus academic understanding from a comfortable place. The client is more than intelligent enough to understand this, but the emotional resistance to discomfort weakens the rigor of her mind, which I now I appeal to.

Josef: “No one said there was a total lack. But the facts are this: the vast majority of what I invite members of your team to do–they procrastinate at best, or just never do. You’re not qualified to say the theory doesn’t fit reality if you rarely try it on. You’re looking at a coat from across a football field and deciding it doesn’t fit.”

Client: “Well, that’s hard to look at, but I can’t argue with it.”

Josef: “I appreciate you taking this in, I know it isn’t easy. Usually when people don’t think my teachings aren’t real-world enough, it’s because they’re not taking action on the concrete things I give them to do–and they’re not internalizing what they’re learning so that happens on its own, in addition.

So I end up doing a lot of talking about the ‘Why’ to try to inspire action, but the longer you go not doing anything differently, the more abstract it will seem. But you are making it abstract, not me. I live this stuff every day, as do many of my clients, and I assure you it’s not just philosophy.”

Client: “I think I’m getting what you’re saying. So the real question is, ‘How and why are we not proactively trying on what you’ve been giving us to do?’”

Josef: “Ah ha! Indeed, that’s it! Are you ready to grapple with that question until it’s fully answered? Because that’s the real beginning of our work together.”

Client: [big sigh] “I think I finally am.”                               


“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not.” ~Yogi Berra

Of course, the unusually insightful baseball catcher is right. He was known for his pithy and paradoxical sayings, my favorite being, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Unfortunately, every time I hear this quote invoked it’s used as an excuse, fascinatingly similar to “It’s just semantics.” This deflections’ version is the impassioned cry that begins, “The reality is…”

Living according to principles means the principles come first except when all else has failed. This is integrity. There surely are many criminals who turned to theft, assault, and even murder to provide for their own needs when conventional ways didn’t “work for them.” Yet we don’t let them off the hook, do we? They were just being practical, after all! Their minimum wage job “working for the man” wasn’t working for them.

The 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis that all but the richest of rich paid for was caused by those richest of rich who weren’t quite “earning” as much passive income as they liked. So they incentivized no-doc home loans and pushed interest rates down, flooding the market with money new homeowners didn’t qualify for and would fail to pay back. When the mortgages became toxic assets as the real estate market softened and owners were underwater, they simply packaged them together with healthier assets to hide the ick. It wasn’t illegal, after all (yet), and it’s “what worked” for investors…until the music stopped and those without chairs were ruined, and those “too big to fail” (yet earned doing so) were bailed out to preserve stability in our economy. This was an abandonment of principles to fix the impact of an abandonment of principles. Many think we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop from that bail-out.

Blaming the Jews in Germany for their centuries-old lack of unification as a culture was a “real-world” solution for the Nazis that certainly succeeded in bringing the country together, as xenophobia and war always does…for a while.

One of the main arguments for using nuclear weapons on the general Japanese population was that it would force Japan to unconditionally surrender. Two bombs killed around 150,000 Japanese instantly. Germany had already surrendered three months before. It “worked.” Japan surrendered a week later. Does that mean it was the right thing to do? How much longer could Japan have fought without their German ally? Maybe that “real-world” result could have come more slowly with dramatically fewer civilian deaths and far less destruction.

Every violent act in the history of humans has been justified with efficacy, notions of what the “real world” requires, and conventional-sounding pragmatism. I’m not saying being practical isn’t important. This is only a call to stay true to principles whenever possible and remember how seductive shortcuts are for we humans. After all, in the long-run we always pay the price.

As in the example above, whenever you hear the voice of “The Pragmatist” calling for faster results, or more “real world” application, it ought to cause you to ask questions. Very often, the call for pragmatism comes from fear of change and the unknown. It’s a grip for the familiar and what is most tangible. For leaders, of course, their rewards almost always come from forging into the unknown.

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