Realism and Imagination

It is always interesting to listen to the point of view of experts, economists, psychologists, sociologists, on what will happen in the future even if we think that it will certainly not be a linear extension of the past, much less of the recent one, heavily influenced by the emergency coronavirus.

However, nothing excludes the adoption of two different and complementary mental attitudes to navigate in uncertainty.

The first mental attitude is ‘realism’ which allows the correct perception of the characteristics of events or facts or people, without the distortions produced by feelings such as hope or fear or love or hate, or by a propensity to idealize or demean, or anything else that interferes with exact observation (or action based on it) as a result of emotional pressure of some kind.

Realism is measured on the concrete results obtained, on the results of the actions undertaken.

The ability to judge, the sense of time, the immediate understanding of the relationship between means and results depend on empirical factors such as experience, observation, and above all that sense of reality’ which consists largely of a semi-conscious integration of a large number of apparently irrelevant or imperceptible elements present in the situation; elements that taken together form some kind of design that in itself ‘suggests’ (‘urges’) the appropriate action. This action is undoubtedly a form of improvisation, but it flourishes only on the ground of a rich experience and an exceptional sensitivity to what is relevant in the concrete situation. This exceptional sensitivity thus translates into considerable operational competence or the ability to make things happen.

In a moment like the present, where an unexpected crisis has hit and will hit hard, the ‘realist’ does not waste time in despair but tries to act within the difficulty by transforming it into an opportunity.

Some entrepreneurs, for example, have decided to invest to work on process improvement, look for new market opportunities or work on organizational re-design, using the difficulty of the situation as a space in which to invest time, effort and resources, to make the company even more efficient and innovative. These virtuous examples show that although it is easier to find many reasons to wait, ‘doing’ requires an active commitment and a different, constructive, and doing-oriented attitude that translates into an investment in one’s people and organization.

The literature on realism argues that being realistic or not depends on one’s belief system, an idea we have of ourselves supported by references. Let’s imagine a table: the idea is the top, while the legs are the references that support the top (i.e. the idea). Creating a sideboard, therefore, is a bit like building a table: once the top rests on solid legs, it is difficult to move it; once the idea we have of ourselves is supported by solid convictions, it becomes a certainty. But what are these references? They are nothing more than past experiences to which we attach great importance to the point of transforming the memory into an (influential) idea about ourselves.

Many people, therefore, develop limiting beliefs about what they are or are capable of doing simply because they have not been successful in the past; and this belief is so influential that they come to believe that they will never get it even in the future. Consequently, for fear of suffering and running into other failures, they fixate on the idea that one must necessarily be realistic. Those who repeat over and over the phrase “let’s keep our feet on the ground” actually live in fear of being disappointed again. It is fear that holds them back and drives them to hesitate and not commit themselves fully.

Great leaders are rarely realistic. They are intelligent, far-sighted, charismatic, brilliant, but not realistic by the normal yardstick.

However, what is realistic for one person may not be realistic for another based on their different references. Gandhi, for example, was convinced of obtaining the autonomy of India without violently opposing Great Britain, which was unthinkable at the time. He wasn’t realistic at all, yet in the end, his belief proved more than ever possible and successful.

In any case, it is perhaps better that realism is accompanied by another mental ‘habit’: our imagination. We need to imagine, to imagine what is not there, to imagine new things.

Business is a world that has lost the ability to imagine and one of the ways out of this difficult situation is to imagine: markets, products, services, organizations, skills, leadership models.

Imagination is more important than knowledge, Einstein said, let’s give it back its rightful place, let’s learn or re-learn to imagine, dream, think, conceive, create.

Realism and imagination fill the future; two parts that move together harmoniously to create something that is not yet there.

Realism without imagination would run the risk of being efficient or pragmatic but without a drive to create, to build the new.

Imagination without realism would be just a daydream.

In reality, many of the great leaders of history have combined these two fundamental characteristics to build possible futures: realism and imagination.

The construction of the next time is what it is necessary to work on to fill that void that is the future, with valuable contents, full of meaning. Then it will depend on how good we will be at imagining and how good we will be in achieving what we have imagined.

I generally tend towards realism and I propose starting from today, with its pluses and minuses, but I am aware that it is also necessary to imagine something new, better, truly original.

What do you think?


Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo is a lawyer and teacher of law & Economic Sciences, "lent" to the finance world. He has worked, in fact, 35 years long for a multinational company of financial service in the auto sector, where he held various roles, until that of CEO. In the corporate field, he has acquired skills and held positions as Credit Manager, Human Resource Manager, Team leader for projects of Acquisition & Merger, branch opening, company restructuring, outplacement, legal compliance, analysis and innovation of organizational processes, business partnerships, relations with Trade Unions and Financial Control Institutions. After leaving the company, he continued as an external member of the Board of Directors e, at the same time, he has gone back practicing law and was a management consultant for various companies. He has been also a columnist for newspapers specializing in labor law, automotive services and work organization. His interests include human behavior in the organizational environment, to the neuroscience, the impact of new technologies, the fate of the planet and people facing poverty or war scenarios. He loves traveling, reading, is passionate about many sports, follows the NBA and practices tennis.

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