Pragmatism is no longer pragmatic. Generating solutions in a way that depends on focusing on specific problems in a specific context is no longer enough in a world of massive interdependency. If you focus on creating an optimal financial derivative without concern for the larger system of which it’s a part, you might actually trigger a collapse in mortgage markets or the entire banking system. What works best in isolation is increasingly irrelevant or even dangerous: the pragmatic, heads-down solution may have become the problem.
Pragmatism emerged when the same thing happened to Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinking was about universal truths, or principles. Pragmatists discarded the search for the universal and south instead for specific solutions. The birth of pragmatism in the late 19th century was coincident with the birth of the knowledge worker – engineers, marketing professionals, managers, etc. who had to discover or create specific solutions for the specific technological or market problems they faced.
But no one works in a vacuum. We never have. But in today’s world, inter connectivity, connections, the ripples of dependencies, and environment or context are more important than they’ve ever been. What goes on within a nation-state is rarely isolated to that nation-state, for instance; technology in the US can contribute to flooding in India and economic policy in Mexico can contribute to population growth and wage stagnation in the US.
To focus on the particulars of a problem is to miss the context, the larger system of which it’s a part. Pragmatism is no longer pragmatic because solutions cannot simply ignore the context.
Systems thinking begs the question of vision: what larger system do you see yourself as part of? And this is a matter of choice – to a degree – and vision. Obviously, issues of sustainability and systems limits impose constraints on any problem set.
But beyond that, one chooses the history he’s a part of by the choice of context.
Leadership creates a credible narrative that puts specific actions into a larger context. It gives meaning. It provides boundaries for problems. And it suggests goals. It does not dictate choices, it simply provides a context for them.
The most pressing need today may be the need to create a credible context for individual choices. What is the future we’re creating? What do we see as the future of humanity and this planet? How will life be better and different in 10 years? 100? I don’t suppose anyone can impose such a vision – but properly articulated, such a vision could compel behaviors.
Pragmatism that assumes uncoordinated autonomy will no longer work. It's time for leadership that assumes a shared fate rather than individual fatalism.