Leadership and imagination

Leaders who harness their imagination are innovative, visionary and often charismatic. These leaders engender creativity and learning, driving their organizations to fresh paths and uncharted territories.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D., Organization Development Psychologist

Imagination is an essential tool in the realm of leadership. As leadership is about navigating the way forward, your imagination is often what determines the quality and direction of that journey.

Some leaders leverage their imagination extensively, and those who, conversely, rely more on traditional methods and analytical tools. Let’s contrast these two types of leaders to see how imagination impacts their effectiveness.

Understanding imagination

First, let’s clarify what we mean by imagination. We can conceive ideas, images, or possibilities outside the box of “normal.” Outside our normal and often outside the normal of those we are or wish to lead.

Imagination is the ability to think beyond the present circumstances into the realm of the potential and the possible, even the improbable.

Leaders who use imagination

Leaders who harness their imagination are innovative, visionary and often charismatic. These leaders engender creativity and learning, driving their organizations to fresh paths and uncharted territories.

They leverage imagination, theirs and that of their followers to solve problems, envision possibilities, and break away from traditional thought patterns.

Steve Jobs led Apple to create groundbreaking products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. He imagined a world where technology was not just utilitarian but also aesthetically pleasing and integral to daily life. His imagination transformed the entire technology industry.

Leaders with less imagination

In contrast, leaders who rely less on their imaginative capacities tend to focus on managing daily operations, setting clear goals, and driving efficiency. While this approach is critical for organizational stability and operational excellence, it won’t have the creative drive and foresight needed to innovate and adapt to transforming environments.

Kodak, once an industry-leading company, failed to imagine and respond to the shifts brought by digital technology despite having early access to the technology itself. Its leadership’s lack of imagination and foresight led to Kodak’s fall from an industry giant to bankruptcy.

The importance of imagination in leadership

Managing change and innovation: Leaders who use imagination well are often at the forefront of innovation. They may foresee changes and trends before they become apparent. They encourage experimentation and risk-taking, even if it means experiencing failures.

Conversely, leaders with less imagination may struggle with change, sticking to what has been tried and true, but may not be so effective in today’s environment of rapid change.

Vision and inspiration: Imaginative leaders articulate a compelling vision of the future. They can create an image of the possibility that energizes their followers and the entire organization.

Less imaginative leaders often focus on the immediate, tangible goals, which, while important, may not ignite the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.

Problem-solving and decision-making: Imagination equips leaders with the ability to conceive multiple scenarios, anticipate challenges, and come up with creative solutions.

Other leaders may rely only on data-driven, analytical problem-solving. While this approach is effective in many situations, it can limit them when faced with complex, unprecedented problems requiring out-of-the-box thinking.

Balancing act: The need for both types of leadership

While it may seem that imaginative leadership is superior, it is important to acknowledge the value and necessity of both.

How can leaders develop their imagination?

Much like any other skill, imagination development requires conscious effort and consistent practice. Here are some strategies that you can employ to enhance your imaginative capacity:

Embrace curiosity: The first step to nurturing imagination is fostering a spirit of curiosity. Be curious and explore. Read widely within your specific field and outside it. Be curious about the ideas and thoughts of others. Notice how others think and see patterns.

Engage your curiosity with your team members, friends, and strangers. They are all different from you. That means there is always something you can learn from them–whenever you step outside of your own beliefs.

Create a safe space for creative thinking: Cultivate an environment where out-of-the-box ideas are valued and rewarded. Encourage risk-taking and allow for failures, as they are an integral part of the creative process. Your skill with curiosity will help you.

Engage in lateral thinking: Lateral thinking involves looking at problems from different perspectives and connecting seemingly unrelated concepts.

Imagine a problem arising. Notice your normal way of thinking about a solution, then imagine an approach to the problem that someone very different from you might take!

Relax: Take time to think, reflect, and meditate. These practices help to clear the mind and enable deeper thinking. This is key to stimulating imagination.

When too many priorities, too many deadlines or too many people to please take our focus, imagination goes out the window.

Take in art and nature: Being with and appreciating art, music, literature, and nature can stimulate the brain’s creative faculties and spark imaginative thinking.

Learn from children: Children often have a natural capacity for imaginative thinking that we can learn from. They see the world with fresh eyes and ask inquisitive questions. They do not use ‘realistic’ constraints to limit themselves.

Ask children their thoughts about whatever you may be contemplating. Their creative processes may inspire you and kindle your own imagination.

Travel: Exposing oneself to different cultures and experiences can expand your mind and fuel your imagination. It encourages empathetic understanding and provides fresh perspectives.

Scenario planning: Regularly brainstorm different future scenarios for your team and organization with your people. This will stretch the imaginative muscle, preparing for different possibilities, and foster strategic foresight.

Developing imagination in leadership is a continual process. It requires practice and a willingness to explore and learn. By nurturing your imagination, you, too, can innovate, inspire, and navigate the future more effectively!

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of the Center for Human Systems. He is an organization development psychologist with over 45 years of experience. The national Organization Development Network honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award!

Ask for a Free one-hour consultation. You’ll be surprised at the difference one hour can make!


Check him out on his website at www.CHumanS.com. Or email him at michael@chumans.com.

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