Would you rather be right or romantic?

Many ideas about workplace success are based more on romantic ideals than a realistic view of the world. Romanticism maybe has its place, but it’s not a sound basis for directing important choices. Here’s how to get it in perspective.

England’s last civil war took place in the mid-17th century. On one side was the king, Charles I, and his supporters known as Cavaliers. Opposing them was a group of Puritan parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell. They were known as Roundheads, from a distinctive type of helmet worn by their army.

When I was at school, we remembered which side was which like this: the Cavaliers were wrong, but romantic; the Roundheads were right, but repulsive1

Puritanism has never been liked in Europe2, but that childish rhyme has more to offer than an insight into social and religious prejudice.

The cavaliers stood for the past, the status quo, and the divine right of the king to do whatever he wished with people and country.

All poor choices, everyone today agrees. But they were dashing. They wore fancy clothes and huge hats with feathers. Many fought as cavalry (hence their nickname)—all thundering charges and the flash of swords over the battlefield. They were also rash, often vain, wasted victories in pointless pursuits of the defeated, and ultimately lost the war.

The Roundheads were puritans, which was a bad start (and made them repulsive).

But they also stood for rule by parliament, an end to arbitrary aristocratic privilege, and the principle that no one, including the king, was above the law.

All right ideas, by modern notions.

Sadly they wore dark clothes, suppressed music and dancing, were often religious fundamentalists, and pursued the war with grim efficiency. That’s why they won.

It’s also why they still have a very bad press—plus the fact that Oliver Cromwell, their leader, made himself into a tyrant after the victory, and was every bit as proud and dictatorial as King Charles had been (and not nearly as romantic).

Why this history matters

The purpose of this article isn’t to provide a potted history of the English Civil War. I thought of it only because it offers such a neat parallel with fashionable ideas today.

Being effective isn’t rocket science. It takes effort, of course, but it mostly requires the application of reason and commonsense.

Don’t rush decisions needlessly. Think through your options with care. Avoid taking unnecessary or poorly-understood risks. Treat people with respect. Slow down, give yourself time to think, consider all the options, and make decisions rationally, not emotionally.

None of these ideas are new, difficult, or profound. So why do they still have to be pointed out?

Today’s equivalent of the dashing cavalry charge

Oddly, today’s fashionable Hamburger Management, for all its worship of efficiency and measurements, is, in reality, extremely romantic.

It’s full of sound and fury, haste, shouted commands, instant decisions, and the odd belief that constantly taking risks—even (especially?) rash ones—is proof of natural leadership. That’s why macho CEOs cut such dashing, romantic figures on the covers of business magazines— and why their mistakes tend to look so obvious after the event, and their fall is typically so sudden and catastrophic.

You can choose a romantic approach to working life, full of sound and fury, highs and lows, triumphs and disasters; or you can take a calmer, more rational style—more like the Buddhist approach—that avoids extremes and cultivates steadiness, realism, and detachment.

Which you choose is up to you. In a free society everyone should be able to select how they prefer to live. It’s worth considering, though, that there’s a price attached to each option.

Being romantic seems very often to come with being wrong—in the sense that as a path to success, it’s far from efficient. Too many fake hopes, impractical visions, false starts, and energy wasted on rushing about pointlessly, like Prince Rupert’s cavalry in the battles of the English Civil War. All the drama really needs to be its own reward.

The alternative, rational route is more like Cromwell’s army: rather dull, not at all romantic, and generally very efficient. Fewer highs and lows, fewer excitements . . . and much more likely to win in the end.

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  1. The words came from a satirical history book written at the time, called “1066 & All That: A Memorable History Of England, Comprising All The Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings And 2 Genuine Dates.”
  2. Which is probably why so many Puritans emigrated to America.