What If? The Power of Imagination In Life And Leadership


What If? The Power of Imagination In Life And Leadership

We are living in an age of unprecedented innovation. New technologies and developments in artificial intelligence are making the leap from what was once pure science fiction into reality. Apps and gadgets are reshaping how we live and move about the planet.

And yet…

There are two devastating wars being fought. Mass shootings seem as frequent as Tic Tok videos. Ideological and political divides have become chasms. Drug additions, economic disparities, and food insecurities are rampant. And loneliness has become so pervasive that it is now being characterized as an epidemic.

Our global imagination is off the charts for innovation for technology and products that make our lives easier, better, happier, and more productive. So why are we struggling to join together as human beings to live, love, work and lead in ways that respect, value, and grow healthy and generative relationships?

What if we chose to focus both our individual and collective imaginations, on social innovation? Throughout the nooks and crannies of history, there are stories and examples of people who have engaged their imaginations to solve difficult problems and bring people together. These people started by first transforming their sphere of social influence, and ultimately transformed the world.

In the following paragraphs, we will explore two of these stories and suggest some ways of engaging our imagination to inform how we live and lead in ways that tighten the embrace of our own humanity, while inviting others to do the same.

Positive Deviance

Our first story originates in the rice fields of Vietnam in the 1990s. Jerry and Monique Sternin were working with Save the Children to address the problem of chronic malnutrition in rural villages. Teams of experts had been unsuccessful despite offering their research-based best practices. Using Positive Deviance inquiry, the Sternin’s found an example of a mother who found a way to nourish her children in healthy ways in spite of the environmental and economic challenges. New practices began to emerge in other families that led to lasting changes. As it turned out, these mothers collected foods typically considered inappropriate for children (e.g., sweet potato greens, shrimp, and crabs), washed their children’s hands before meals, and actively fed them three to four times a day instead of the typical two meals a day provided to other children. During the Sternin’s imaginative Positive Deviant inquiry over a 2-year period malnutrition decreased by 84 percent.

A second example of engaging imagination, comes from the Telos Group, a nonprofit group of peacemakers who travel across lines of difference to bring healing to conflict at home and abroad. Telos leaders and participants engage as peacemakers in the deepest injustices and generational traumas in the US, Israel/Palestine, Ireland, and other countries with deeply entrenched zones of conflict.

One of the peacemaking trips Telos leads is to the American south, to the historic places where the civil rights movement originated in the epicenters of racism. They tell the story of a woman they became good friends with, Callie Greer. Callie lost 2 sons, one to a broken health care system, and another to gun violence. Her son who was victim to violence was killed on a weekend visit home. The police arrested the young man who killed him, and it quickly went to trial. When Callie was asked to give a victim’s impact statement she said to the judge, “You do your job. You do what you gotta do, but don’t do anything because you think I need a long sentence for this young man. I don’t want him to have a long sentence. I don’t want him to spend the rest of his life in jail. I want him to never do this again, but I don’t want him to be incarcerated forever. I’ve forgiven him.” She went on to say, “Don’t waste your pain. It costs too much. Find creative and healing outlets for the energy that is created by your pain and do redemptive things out of your pain.” Callie has since devoted her life to the work of healing.

These emotionally provocative stories beg the question,

“What if, instead of fading into apathy, jadedness, or hopelessness, we risk leveraging the incredible, transformative power of our imaginations in positively deviant ways?”

In Latin deviatus means “turning from the straight road.” Sociologists define positive deviance as “intentional behaviors that significantly depart from the norms of a group in honorable ways.” Simply put, Positive Deviance is solving problems in ways that are not customary or “normal”.

Here are two “What If’s” about engaging our imaginations for positive change in life and leadership to spark our thinking:

  1. What if we hit “PAUSE” one day each month for an entire year to unhook from the frenetic pace of life for the sole purpose of self-reflection and engaging in wonder around community members and/or organizations who we think are already engaging in uncommon behavior? The purpose of self-reflection is to assess your heart about where you are giving the lion’s share of your time and energy, and then to probe your desire for the impact you wish to make in the world. This first step will help identify gap areas in the way you are engaging with loved ones, co-workers, other community members, and the world.

 The second step is to embrace your sense of wonder, without judgement or reservation, about people or organizations you believe are living, working, or leading in ways that are positively deviant (intentionally departing from the norm in honorable ways to make a difference.) As the Sternins discovered, lasting change requires ownership from others, and this only comes when changes in behavior are modeled through others they trust. Finally, ask yourself, what if I reached out to connect with this person or organization to devote quality time for conversation or volunteerism in the near future?

In the approach to behavioral and social change termed Positive Deviancy, there is something called “The Summersault Statement.” It invites no small degree of mental gymnastics as the entire premise flips around and the brain is stretched toward an imaginative leap. A key summersault statement in Positive Deviancy is. “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking rather than thinking your way into a new way of acting.”

Redefining “Leadership”

  1. What if we get curious about our core understanding and definition of leadership? The Kansas Leadership Center identifies the common mindset that leadership is a position. People hold it. It’s a title. It’s filling a role. In their work, they have discovered a more imaginative mindset where the best work is done personally and organizationally when everyone leads. This can only occur when there’s a new mindset and definition of leadership. What if, as they postulate, that leadership is an activity. It’s a thing we do. With this mindset, leadership is mobilizing others to make progress on complex and entrenched challenges. It is not a role.

One reason this new mindset rings true, especially if we are talking about the really hairy adaptive challenges, is that no one is powerful enough to exercise all the leadership by themselves. It not only takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a village, and it takes villages to raise a world where collective imaginations are leveraged against complex and pervasive challenges that are sucking the life out of civil interactions and relational connections.

To live into the new mindset of leadership as an activity means stepping out of our comfort zones to embrace (OS!M.s) or Oh Sh** Moments as Steve Farber describes in his book, The Radical Leap. He says that “Leaders understand that learning never ends, so they remain open to radical new perspectives and ideas, even when they come from the most unexpected sources. With this perspective, fear is a natural part of growth, so leadership not only welcomes or tolerates O.S!M.s, but welcomes, tolerates and pursues them publicly, so they communicate by action and example, “we should all be doing this!”

When leadership becomes an activity that we believe requires everyone’s gifts and abilities, then we must embrace the mindset that we are in this together, and we need each other in spite of our differences. We actually carry an ethical responsibility to be accountable with one another for how people are treated and for doing our part to achieve our collective mission.

Dr. Nate Regier, author of Compassionate Accountability, shares that nurturing compassionate accountability means owning and being responsible for your own behavior and work tasks while at the same time staying committed in caring relationships with others to achieve an outcome. It is rooted in a mindset and commitment that we are “in this together” and we will struggle with each other to accomplish goals and overcome challenges.

Leadership behaviors that flow from a mindset compassionate accountability include:

  • Valuing others for who they are and the gifts & abilities they bring. Believe and behave in ways that affirm their inherent value as a human being.
  • Communicating with others in ways that let them know that they are capable. Affirm them, believe in them, and thank them for their contribution.
  • Taking responsibility for yourself and what you can control, while at the same time holding others responsible for their part. Stay committed to carrying the load together.

A wild-haired genius once said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

We haven’t lived in an A to B world for a long time. Multinational corporations, governments, militaries, and the scientific and technology communities have known this and embraced their imaginations in remarkable ways for profit and victory and innovation. What if we chose to unleash our individual and collective imaginations to transform relationships, our families. Coworkers, and communities in ways that create a dramatic shift in the social fabric of our world? What might this look like?

What if?

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