Is It a Good Thing to be Idealistic?

Posted by Matt Berringer on September 4, 2012

Idealism and RealismBy Dr. Ramiro Zuniga

Too many times, I have heard individuals dismiss an idea or a person for being idealistic. I am sure you have heard, “It’s a good idea but it just isn’t realistic,” or “He’s a good administrator but he needs to be more realistic in his expectations.”

Many would argue that leaders need to be realistic as opposed to idealistic. Some would argue that being idealistic is not, “real world.” I would have to disagree. Don’t we expect good leaders to have a vision? Of course. It is expected that a good leader look at a situation, picture the best case scenario, and then pursue it. Included in this vision is the pathway for overcoming barriers to reaching the objective.

From my perspective, I think we need more individuals that are idealistic. In fact, I think it imperative that as educational leaders we all be idealistic.

I would argue that, those who dismiss idealistic thinkers, are looking for an excuse to not try their best. After all, we know that doing our best is seldom an easy task. I am not suggesting that these individuals are intentionally sabotaging their efforts. I think it is natural to follow, even unconsciously, the path of least resistance. I would however say that deciding to be, “realistic” can result in mediocre results.

I think back to the Principal preparedness course that I taught. Several of my students expressed concern because they had yet to pass the state certification principal exam. I always advised my students to think in idealistic terms. It was too easy for them to answer exam questions based on what they had seen occur at their campuses. I would remind them the exam was designed for them to think and respond in an idealistic manner. I am very happy to say that, based on emails received, the change in thinking made all the difference. It is very much apparent to me, that those responsible for principal certification at the state level are looking for principals that are idealistic.

Make no mistake. I am not completely dismissing the value of being realistic. I think that a good leader possesses and skillfully uses both characteristics. The art, of course, is balancing both to end with the best outcomes.

As an example, I think it is a great idea for a campus principal to want a computer or tablet for each of his students; a one-to-one initiative. Realistically, this initiative may not be possible in one year due to budget constraints, but can be achieved if planned over a multi-year period. Perhaps this initiative can become reality in three years. If the principal simply dismisses this initiative, it will certainly never come to fruition.

There is no doubt in my mind that idealistic thinking can be contagious. The staff that you lead can be inspired to perform at a higher level. Generally speaking, most employees look forward to the challenge of reaching new heights. The intrinsic rewards found in achieving the seemingly unreachable can be addictive. Who doesn’t feel wonderful after such an accomplishment?

Skeptics would argue that to think in ideal terms is to seek perfection. I would ask why seeking perfection is such a bad thing. Why, in education, would we aim for anything less? Is this what we would expect from our physician, our mechanic, or others?

I am an absolute believer in idealists. I refuse to relent to those who doubt or disagree. How else can we achieve the highest standards? As educators, aren’t we supposed to be idealistic? Isn’t that what we teach our students?

Topics: staff development, education, Leadership, K-12