Pragmatism: A time-tested leadership strategy in the Marketplace

As someone who migrated to North America as a young adult, I am always fascinated by Nehemiah’s story (in the bible) because his leadership experience as a professional and immigrant in Persia. Learning about his leadership qualities has helped me answer one of my most burning questions: “Why do leaders with brilliant and innovative ideas don’t last in certain positions?” These leaders come in with a huge dose of idealism but with little regard for the realities/challenges of implementing their visions. The answer lies in finding the right balance of idealism and pragmatism in your leadership style as you pursue your goal. Nehemiah is one of those leaders who epitomizes this right balance. So how did he do go about it?

Nehemiah was an immigrant Jew who served as the chief Butler for King Xerzes, the most powerful man in the Persian kingdom in his time. Despite having one of the enviable jobs in the world (in terms of access and assets), he maintained a strong passion to see his home country rise from the ruins (his ideals). Nehemiah went to Jerusalem to rebuild the city having received a royal approval and backing for his mission. But Nehemiah’s leadership qualities were tested through the opposition he faced while implementing his religious, organizational, and socio-economic reforms in his home country. Here are few relevant pragmatic strategies gleaned from his story.

  1. Despite your idealism, recognize that context matters

Before shoving your visions and ideals down the throats of your team members, you need to pay attention to the realities on ground. You need a contextual understanding of the people you lead, including their demographics, inventory of their skills and competencies, organizational culture, and the challenges your people face in discharging their duties. This must be done through direct interaction with your people and not through any intermediary. Get to know your people in and outside the office. Organize out-office social events to get to know the people. Nehemiah understood the dynamics of the people he led. The majority are poor with limited resources to feed their families except for the selected few (capitalists) who profited on their sweat of the majority. He understood the socio-economic inequalities and class warfare that was going on.

  • Understand the politics or power dynamics at play

I must confess that I don’t like office politics but I’m learning to use it to advance my mission. Power/authority, social relationships, and personal interests are three main concepts that underlie office politics. As a leader, you need to pay attention to these three concepts in your team/organization. Identify and engage the project champions, power brokers, and leaders in your organization. Nehemiah understood the nature of the influence the nobles wielded both within and outside Jerusalem. They had established relationships with and became informants for the surrounding enemy nations who panned to eliminated Nehemiah and his mission. Also, these nobles were rich capitalists to whom the common man was indebted. Even though they did not share the same values, he could not accomplish his goals without them. Rather than shy away from the politics, become knowledgeable about it, and use it to your advantage.

  • Get off your high horse and adapt your leadership style to your new environment

Having worked with/for the most powerful man (King Atarxerxes) during that civilization, Nehemiah could easily have been perceived as an elitist with little or nothing in common with the poor man on the street of Jerusalem. Such a tag would have derailed his agenda of rebuilding Jerusalem. Instead, he chose to be adaptable. He denied himself the comfort of being a governor, got involved in the actual building wall (he was there every day from dawn till dawn), and inspired his people to achieve the impossible.

  • Avoid taking sides, rather seek common grounds

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah observed the socio-economic inequality in Jerusalem. There were the nobles (the wealthy and politically connected folks) and the poor. There was no middle class. rather than take sides in the class warfare, he sought to work with both the nobles and the common man. Successful leaders work to unite people behind a common goal. Nehemiah avoided the trap of taking sides in the on-going class warfare in his time. Instead, he became the bridge that united people of different social classes to achieve a common goal of rebuilding Jerusalem. Taking sides with some team members while alienating others, or any perceived notion of such, will discredit your personality, create difficult relationships with your team, and terminate your vision even before it starts. Use your knowledge of the existing politics in your organization to seek common grounds that leads to a win-win situation for parties involved while achieving your goal.

Although pragmatic leadership can easily be viewed as negative and compromising, it is a mentality that, if embraced, stretches you and your team beyond your rose-colored ideals to identify problems and problem-solve in ways that helps achieve your goals. If Nehemiah (who lived thousands of years ago) could make history by based on this principle, the same can be true for you in your organization regardless of how small or big your vision is.