The Importance of Imagination

The Importance of Imagination

There is a trait of great leadership that I want to commend to you in this week’s Leading Thoughts. It might sound a bit trendy or murky to some ears, but I’m convinced it is a trait we must have to lead well, one that we can strengthen intentionally in our lives.

This trait, this skill, is imagination. Now, a Disney-esque image might be forming in your mind as you read this word. This isn’t necessarily what I mean. Visions of cartoons and bright colors don’t necessarily need to be dancing in your head.

Imagination is the ability to envision mentally what isn’t already there. It is the skill of picturing what isn’t real, but—in a leadership context—could be.

The importance of imagination to great leadership is hard to exaggerate. Lincoln envisioned a free United States and it empowered him to remake his country. Churchill envisioned what Britain’s sacrifices in combatting Nazism would mean a thousand years later and it became the source of inspiration for his people. Generals envision battles not yet fought. CEOs imagine markets and products that don’t yet exist. Educators imagine knowledge embedded in the minds of yet unlearned students and then imagine the means of making it happen.

And so it goes.

Nearly all greatness, nearly all achievement, comes from an initial act of imagining. Of course, action must follow, but far too often we have action without informed imagination, and this leads to empty busyness.

Now, each of us steps into adulthood with a certain amount of imaginative ability. This comes from how our parents interacted with us, what reading we have done, how teachers awakened dormant portions of our minds, and how freely we allowed our minds to roam.

We can take our imaginative abilities further, though. Here are some ways.

1. Read and Read Broadly

Space travel, the personal computer, the cell phone, and the microchip were all first imagined in the pages of science fiction. Political visions have often arisen from the pages of literature and poetry. Compassion for people far removed is inspired when we delve into cultures and worldviews unfamiliar to us but made understandable by the written word. Read and read broadly. It enflames imagination

2. Master Possibilities and Not Just Facts

Most leaders specialize in understanding what already exists. Yet they need a vision of the future. What will their industry look like in twenty years? Will it even exist? What will tech, markets, global trends, and leadership itself look like when the twenty-five-year-old exec is just hitting his stride in his fifties? This is how a leader thinks and these are the questions effective leaders ask.

3. Talk Dreams

I love getting my successful friends together and asking them to envision the future. “What’s that going to look like in five years?” I’ll often ask. “What will that mean to your grandchildren?” I want to know what’s coming. That’s why I’ve devoted much of my life to the study of the past. I believe history reveals the future. I enlist as much help as I can in imaging what’s coming. You are probably surrounded by smart people who think a great deal about the future. Dream with them. Imagine with them. Let their imaginative abilities be your guide.

That’s it. Cultivate the gift of informed imagination. Great success will follow if you execute well.