Engaging the Imagination

There is neither beginning nor end to the imagination but it delights in its own seasons reversing the usual order at will.

– William Carlos Williams

Consider a situation where you are trying to solve a difficult problem no one yet has been able to solve. Dispirited, you realize that you have reached an impasse. You’ve pursued all the conventional paths but you’re not getting anywhere. Frustrated, you decide to take a break and go for a long walk in the country. As you walk, you find your mind wandering, free-associating about the problem at hand. Without apparent mental effort, you suddenly realize to your surprise that you have solved the problem. Somehow you accessed a totally different way of approaching the issue. Your imagination took over, presenting a solution where before, there had been none. You return home energized and inspired.

Imagination has the power to break the bonds of convention or other constraints on our thinking. It frees us to think differently about the nature of the problem and how it can be solved. It restores our passion for what inspired us about the work in the first place: in this example, the opportunity to solve intractable problems. Likewise, a successful solution propels us to tackle more difficult problems.

In engaging the imagination of others and encouraging them to think differently, leaders get the best from their employees. As a leader, how can you engage your own imagination as well as the imagination of your people?

 Ask Powerful Questions

Robert Kennedy once inspired a nation by asking a powerful question that triggered the imagination of a country:

“Some people see things the way they are and ask why? I see things the way they could be and ask why not?” 

By challenging his audience to imagine a better world (the ways things could be…), Kennedy invited them to think differently, to not accept the status quo.

By then asking the simple question, “Why not?” Kennedy removed the constraints that hold us back from pursuing dreams by reminding us that we all have the power to overcome obstacles to achieve our goals. The result?

An audience inspired to set higher goals and persevere in reaching them.

Asking powerful questions that challenge our conventional way of thinking can give us hope and awaken the latent possibilities within us. Moreover, posing questions that challenge us to become personal agents of change empower us to act as in John F. Kennedy’s challenge:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”


Look at the burning questions you ask about your work or life and

  • Dial up the power of your questions
  • Practice curiosity and dig for root causes
  • Always have a devil’s advocate (but not a naysayer) in your group to challenge the status quo
  • Surround yourself with ‘can do’ people
  • Suspend your habitual ways of thinking that keep you in your comfort zone
  • Remember to make progress you need to be willing to change
  • Brainstorm ideas with trusted colleagues and be willing for the sake of the exercise to go out into left field on solutions
  • Study your competitors and the wider industry and be willing to borrow ideas and develop them for yourself.
  • Combine this exercise with the next blog posting “Discover the Power of Silence” and your imagination will take you to places, in words adapted from the StarTrek episodes,“where no person has been before”.

This posting is based on the book “What Inspirational Leaders Do”  (Kindle 2008) written with Kristine S. MacKain, Ph.D.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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