Most of these “Leadership Proverbs” I’ve just picked up, absorbed and imbibed by some process of osmosis along the way and don’t know exactly whom they originated from. But when I know I’ll make reference, and when I don’t it’s not that I’m ungrateful or that I want to appear like a genius. It’s genuinely that I can’t remember. So if I’ve flogged something from you let me know and I’ll happily acknowledge it.
Pragmatism works in theory, but not in practice
Pragmatism is a way of approaching or assessing problems and situations based either completely or largely on considering their immediate practical consequences. In other words, what’s right is what works.
And it sounds, on first glance, like a helpful way to go. Of course you want to do what works. Why would you have a philosophy where your goal is to do things that don’t work? That’s nuts. So there’s something good and attractive about pragmatism.
One of the problems with it though is that, somewhat ironically, although it sounds good in theory it doesn’t actually work in practice. And the real drama at this point is the fact that decisions and direction are chosen based on immediate practical consequences. Immediate is the problem word. Because sometimes things look bad on paper to begin with, but long term they work out well. Or sometimes things start small and slow but in the long term grow bigger and much faster and longer lasting.
But the problem here is that very often it’s hard or impossible to foresee the long term effects of a solution or direction. Mix in factors such as the Law of Unintended Consequences and unprincipled pragmatism begins to unravel. What works in the short term may not have lasting effects and it may bring unintended and unwanted results with it. You see this kind of insight in places like Proverbs 14:12 and Proverbs 16:25 (both are identical): There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
We need some form of shaping principles, some transcendent guiding posts about what will work and work long term and work to achieve exactly what we’re seeking to achieve.
And our first two leadership principles provide these transcendent guideposts. When we trust the Bible as the supreme authority and we trust the gospel as God’s power to bring about lasting salvation and lasting change then we will have access to those essential guideposts we need.
The point here is not that the Bible is a compendium of leadership insights for every conceivable situation and circumstance, or that the Bible is a collection of verses and insights to be extracted and applied without giving due weight to their intention, authorship and place in the wider Biblical narrative.
My point is simply that as we pursue truth and seek to think God’s thoughts after him, biblically and theologically, then certain foundational principles for “what works” will become clear. For example, preaching the Gospel as clearly and persuasively as we can will “work” in making disciples. God won’t do it any other way than through the gospel.
Pragmatism isn’t bad or evil. We want to do things that work. We want to do things that achieve what we set out to achieve. The issue with pragmatism is that it seems good in theory but doesn’t actually work in practice because deciding strategies and solutions based merely on short term outcomes ignores the usually more important long term effects and the unintended consequences that follow. But because the future is hidden from us when we need insight into long term effects we need an authority we can put our trust in.
Theological Pragmatism, a pragmatism principled and constrained by theological convictions, seems like it will actually work better in the real world. If you know what I mean.