Let me state it plainly. Mental rigidity is death to great leadership. Imagination is fuel to great leadership.
I’ve been watching some recent news stories through the lens of this truth and it has been inspiring and disturbing all at the same time. For example, we all saw the news about the United Airlines flight from Denver to Honolulu that suddenly blew an engine. The videos of a destroyed, fiery engine clinging tenuously to the wing of a Boing 777 were horrifying.
Yet it occurred to me that UA Flight 328 landed safely because someone—probably many someones—imagined that such a thing could happen. In response, they devised the procedures for calling in a “Mayday.” They created contingency plans for emergency ground crews and policies for the Air Traffic Control personnel and, of course, exacting tactics for the pilots in control of the plane. All of these people knew what to do in such circumstances because someone had imagined that just such an event might occur.
Now, let’s contrast this with the weather disaster in Texas. People died. Homes burned down. Human suffering reached the heavens. And all because of a snow storm that was, frankly, not that unexpected. Though months of investigation will be required to determine exactly what happened, followed then by the inevitable lawsuits, it is not going too far to say that a lack of imagination contributed to this tragic episode. People failed to imagine such a storm arising at such a time and with such consequences. If they had imagined it and done so with courage, they would have been as prepared as United Airlines and Denver Airport for such possibilities.
The leader’s role is to imagine what others cannot. It is to envision new products, new markets, new approaches, and new mechanisms of advance. It is also to imagine the negative. What would an economic downturn do to us? How might our products become obsolete? How might a fire in Building #2 spread and how can we put in systems and procedures to save lives and prevent damage? What would happen if we hired a completely different kind of worker than we have thus far?
The positive dreams are a bit easier for us. We can imagine the good. It’s imagining the negative that comes harder. To help with this, I recommend an experience I call the “Disaster Drill.” In this, I put the leader I’m working with in a room with a group of smart, imaginative people. Then, they imagine the worst and ask my leader to tell them how he or she has prepared for each imagined scenario. You would be stunned at the initial fear and nervousness but ultimate successes this has produced.
And it’s all a process of imagination set aflame.
Turn your imagination on what you do. Let possibilities of every extreme and likelihood fill your mind. Envision it. Feel it. Think it through systematically. You will unleash ingenious possibilities and create bulwarks against disaster if you do.
This is going to be a good year for courageous, imaginative leaders. Be one of them.