Imagination as a Leadership Skill

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My graduate program required us to take nine hours outside of our department. I chose to take a course in the MBA program called “Leadership, Literature, and the Individual.” Professor Floyd Brandt’s syllabus described the course this way: “The course begins with the postulate that novels and plays are among the world’s greatest instruments of education….When we allow the skilled writer to take us on a journey into the minds of fictitious characters, then we must visualize and imagine outcomes of those encounters, and thereby learn about ourselves. … This ability to imagine the outcome of future interactions seems to be one of the characteristics of a good leader.”

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.   J.K. Rowling

It was a fascinating course as we read novels and discussed what they had to teach us about leadership. Think about the world created by J. K. Rowling, brought to life first in our imaginations as we read her books, then in movies, and now in various theme parks. Or from an earlier generation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth which was so richly imagined that it resulted in the construction of a permanent version of Hobbiton in New Zealand. 

Imagination is a leadership skill

The ability to imagine complex and complete new worlds with languages, geography, history has always fascinated me. It wasn’t until this course that I ever conceived of imagination as a leadership skill. In the organizational world we generally call it vision. But what ever we call it, the reality is that leaders need to be able to imagine new ways of working in order to lead organizational change. Like fiction writers, leaders need to be able to describe what they imagine to others, to bring them along, to create the necessary change.

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”  Maria Montessori

Imagination creates possibilities to act upon. Possibilities, prospects, what ifs, I wonder if we might, could we – all ways to begin to move toward something new. It’s a reminder that lead is a word of movement and progress. Leadership sets up an expectation of action and change. And to fill a leadership role, we have to be able to imagine new worlds even if they are not quite as magical as Hogwarts or as idyllic as Hobbiton.

Where has your imagination taken you? How do you share your imagination with members of your organization? How do you help them imagine new possibilities for themselves. What have you learned to help others imagine new possibilities for the greater organizaiton? What can you imagine?


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