The Impossible Dream

The Impossible Dream“Tilting at windmills” – a phrase made famous by the off-kilter actions of knight-errant Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha’ – signifies a misdirected idealism.  Indeed, crazy Don Quixote saw the beautiful in everything, no matter how much trouble it got him into, no matter how others derided his optimism.

The Don Quixotes of our world are always a source of both ridicule and wonder.  Yet think about who become our guiding world stars.  It is often the ‘naïve’ idealists who hold to their principles despite mockery and long odds, like Mahatma Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King.  These people gained enormous respect as they stuck to their principles in the face of much greater dangers than we typically face in our work lives.  They refused to simply ‘go along’ because it was the easier route.  In the end, they won people to their idealistic principles and beliefs by the force of their own dedication to them.

Sure, you say – these leaders were after societal change.  They had big ‘impossible dreams’.  But what would make anyone want to buck the system in his or her workplace?  What’s in it for the individual or the organization?  Take a look at a few examples.  Where would Wells Fargo be today if one of its leaders had stood his ground about the ethical imperative to do what was in the customer’s best interest?  Or Volkswagen about the importance of the company’s unassailable reputation?  They might have saved their companies from a slippery slope.  And there was also Steve Jobs, the Don Quixote of technology, whose outlandish vision was too precocious to be believable.  Tilting at a windmill, indeed.

How do we become effective, not foolhardy, Don Quixotes in our work lives?  How do we hold out for the best of ourselves and others, even in the face of disparagement?

Whose principles are you standing for?  Examine first your own motivations.  It’s easy to conflate our own desires with the good of the order.  Andrew, the HR VP, argued strongly that the company’s benefits package favored singles over families.  But his counter-proposals seemed to give increasingly greater benefits as families grew.  Given his own family of five children, he risked his entire argument appearing self-serving.

What are the principles you want to champion?  For each of us, this is an important question.  We all know people who pick a fight about everything, and soon they’re no longer heard.  The best leaders stand out because they stand for just a few important ideas, and they keep those front and center.  Think about Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, whose actions sent clear and continual messages about his equal commitment to the quality of his product and to the wellbeing of his employees.

Think about the nature of the principles to which you want to attach your reputation.  Themes that help you to garner respect for sticking to your guns include:

  • Ethics – is there a strong sense of what is right and just that most people could agree on? If so, your ground is solid.
  • Speaking for those that have difficulty speaking for themselves – are you speaking for a group that is disadvantaged by your company or by society? Are you attempting to right a perceived wrong?  These can be powerful motivators of respect for you – but are predicated on your selflessness in the quest.
  • Speaking for independent thought – speaking up to urge openness, to discourage closing down ideas is seen as helpful and bold.

Think also about what difference it will make.  There are big principles and small principles.  One leader took a major stand over the rights of her employees to have 24/7 access to company files, something about which her employees were, at best, ambivalent – and something that confused company leadership – why was this such a big deal?  To her, it was the principle of access on demand, but she failed to consider whether it was important enough to warrant her advocacy.

How will you stand for your principles?  Tilting at windmills is a nuanced operation.  If you want to be effective, it requires that you exercise finesse in the execution.  The Man of La Mancha’s bumbling style will not serve you well, nor will a strident, in-your-face recitation of why everyone else is wrong and you’re right.  Your job is not even to act as a teacher.  Instead, you are calling out what already exists.  You are respectfully asking others to tap into their best selves; to access their own principles.  You are reminding them that they are noble and decent human beings who want to and are capable of doing what is right and in everyone’s best interests.  In this way, your principles become their principles as well.

John McCain’s recent exhortation to his Senate colleagues demonstrated how to do it well.  The powers of the United States Senate are awesome, he said, and its members need to be worthy of that power.  He called on his fellow Senators to exercise their best versions of themselves.


Let’s be clear.  Real leaders stand up for principles.  They do not back away from the politically difficult job of having a well-considered opinion that breaks ranks.  But they are clear about what they stand for, and skilled in how they communicate their ‘impossible dreams’.  Do you know what ‘unreachable stars’ you are hoping to scale?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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