A compass needle will point towards magnetic north, as long as there is not too much metal around, but typically when travelling we want to get to a geographic location, so it is geographic north that is the more useful reference in deciding our direction.

We often use the compass as a metaphor to evoke those bearings we use (or ignore) to varying degrees when deciding our values and actions. Individual politicians or business-people, for example, are occasionally criticised for their lack of “moral compass”.

Retiring from a post I have worked in for seventeen years has given me a new perspective on what I was doing and some of my strengths and weaknesses. This reflection is in its very early stages. I am two weeks retired and still disorientated by my sudden de-institutionalisation. I have decided to dig out that old compass.

And so it was, in conversation with a friend, that I found myself owning up to a relative lack of attention to what he and I came to call the “pragmatic compass”.

I have spent a fair bit of my time kicking against the pricks (a brilliant phrase that offers in its archaic imagery scope for serious irreverence). This has not achieved as much as I always hoped at the time. Early on, my optimism could have been put down to naivete but later, with greyer hair, one has to wonder at my lack of pragmatism. If I had a pragmatic compass I was not following it very closely.

Needless to say, I had some colleagues who were following theirs and, whilst they were doing so, I accumulated accolades for “standing up for people”. I am proud of that, of course, but I have wondered if I had the balance right and if I might have been able to achieve more if I had adjusted things a little.

My friend and I agreed that in the world – and perhaps especially in the workplace – we need to set our course somewhere between two bearings; those of the moral compass, on the one hand, and those of the pragmatic compass, on the other. If they coincide, then we are truly lucky. If on the other hand they point in opposite directions which, sometimes, they do – we have a particularly thorny problem to resolve. Sometimes, the pragmatic action is in the opposite direction to the moral one.

Anyway, this has got me musing on various situations in which “pragmatic north” and “moral north” diverge by differing angles and, in each case, which course I have chosen – or might in the future choose. I am not a great one for regret, but I think it is worth learning from experience.


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