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Leadership Series V Lack of Imagination

The fifth of Napoleon Hill’s 10 Major Causes of Failure in Leadership is Lack of Imagination.

When faced with the continued onslaught of issues and opportunities, the challenge for leaders is to dig deep, identify root causes and implement creative solutions. Too often we get bogged down in the quagmire of non-stop inputs and become stuck in inaction. To move the business forward, for the team to have faith in the abilities of leadership and to achieve needed results, we as leaders must look at issues with clarity and objectivity. We must stand back, observe and listen to the reality of the situation.

I just returned from a short ‘clarity break’ in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island – a magical place. While there, I read a very insightful book by Sherri Mitchell called Sacred Instructions – Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. One of the many wise statements that Mitchell shares is this:

“Imagination is a powerful force. When we tap into our imagination, we are actively engaging the process of creation. We create by bringing something new into our field of possibility, breathing life into it, and calling it into form.” [CdV1]

My natural tendency is to let my rational mind squash possibility. I don’t think I’m alone in that. As leaders we must develop our curiosity muscles and look at opportunities and challenges with fresh thinking. This is not a simple task, given the endless demands and fast-paced nature of business today. Being too busy, overwhelmed and/or burned out often leaves us less likely to apply imagination when working with the team to find solutions. Being stuck sucks. It stamps out our creativity, thwarts curiosity and often leads to poor decision making.

It’s taken me a long time to learn that I am most effective when I can lengthen the distance between stimulus and response—first see clearly what is going on, and then seek a creative plan of action. When making key decisions, whether emergency-based or strategic, impulsivity is the equally ineffective flip side of ‘stuck-ness’.

When we find ourselves in the never-ending loop of reactivity, we enter the zero-sum game of deciding quickly between option A or option B. Rather than rushing to choose between A or B, sometimes it’s best, although more difficult, to sit in the tension between the two and wait for a third option to present itself. This does not necessarily require more time; it just needs more mental and emotional space to unfold. Instead of an ‘either-or’ decision, it's wonderful when a ‘both-and’ third way materializes.

I don’t consider myself terribly imaginative or creative. But I can be curious. I like to dig into issues and opportunities to see what is truly there, what makes things tick, and what I can learn from others that I may be able to apply.

Now and throughout history, people have come up with ideas and solutions that we can investigate – should we be curious enough to look. Sometimes all we need to do is take a little of this, a pinch of that and a good portion of something else to help us form a solution. What may be needed is the integration of some of the most imaginative ideas already available to us. By using our imagination, we can identify and assemble good ideas from many different areas, cobbling them together into a new whole.

Imagination does not have to be overwhelming. As leaders, we don’t have to hit a home run every time. It can be one little thing at a time, adding layer upon layer. We just have to start. We do not have to “Blue Sky” everything.

Having an operations background, I lean toward the practical and linear. I don’t do a ton of big thinking and I’m very happy with that. Visionaries have that ability, and they need people like me to integrate their big ideas into the reality of the business. Given that, I am finally learning that my strength is to imagine how to come up with uncommon solutions to common problems.

As John D. Rockefeller Jr. once said, “The secret to success is to do the common thing uncommonly well. There are many, maybe infinite ways to succeed in business: the key is to focus on and do the things that need doing to achieve it.” Perhaps imagination is not always about coming up with the next greatest thing, but rather with innovating toward focus, simplicity and excellence in execution. I’m pretty sure we need both skills, and if we don’t possess them ourselves, we’d better have people on our team who complement our strengths.

As we go through the challenges of business and life, if we are awake and aware, we can gain wisdom. Wisdom, to me, is as important as imagination. It provides us with a more holistic way of assessing key situations. Wisdom and imagination are linked and are quite different from and more effective than pure intellectual knowing. Great leaders seek and share true wisdom and imaginative knowing. As Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

So, to wrap this up, some quick-hit thoughts for you:

  • Is your view of the universe one of abundance or scarcity? The universe, and you along with it, are constantly growing, changing and creating new things. You can tap into the flow of that energy. When you are open to possibility, your imaginative energies connect you to a world of new potential (This is what hanging out in Tofino does from you!).

  • Nothing stays the same – old ways die and new ways are born, continually. This is the cyclical pattern of life. You must allow old things, old ways of doing things, and old processes to die so your imagination can bring new things to life.

  • Fear is your friend when it comes to survival, but it is an impediment to creativity. You must recognize and acknowledge your fears while at the same time understand that it is not the only voice to pay attention to. Fear constricts your imagination; be sure to recognize when that is happening.

  • Perfection is the foil of imagination. Resist the urge to automatically go to the reasons why something won’t work. Take one small step and see where it leads. There will be hurdles to all imaginative solutions, but nothing will ever get off the ground if you start with ‘no’.

  • Before you can imagine, you must create space for it to happen. If you are over-tired, stressed, burned out, or all of the above, you will not have much imaginative power. This affects your people and your business. Take intentional time daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and/or annually to step away from the fray. Turn off your phone, sit in silence, meditate, go for a drive with no music, go away for a couple of days on your own; do whatever practice works for you in becoming present to the here and now, and in increasing your awareness of what truly is.

  • Do not be afraid to sit in the tension of uncertainty, remaining open to the unfolding of unthought-of possibilities.

  • Crisis of imagination? The only thing that holds you back is yourself…

Until next time!

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