The Twelve Principles of Personal Leadership: Principle #5 - Imagination

The Twelve Principles of Personal Leadership: Principle #5 – Imagination

13.5 min read

Greg L. Thomas

Have you heard the story about a truck that got stuck under a bridge? It is said that a box truck was attempting to pass under a large bridge. As the truck driver approached the structure he felt there was enough room to clear the bottom of the steel and concrete deck of the bridge. But as he was passing under, he suddenly hear a loud screeching noise! The screech turned in to a grind and the lurching truck came to a dead stop! It was now locked under the bridge and could go neither forward or backward.

Putting the transmission in reverse, or one of the forward gears was to no avail as the vehicle was now firmly lodged directly under the bridge. Traffic came to a complete standstill and naturally the local authorities were called out to examine the situation. How would they get the truck out from under the bridge?

A tow truck was sent out to try to pull the vehicle free. A county engineer arrived to examine this difficult situation. There were deep discussions and many measurements were made. Various calculations were performed to determine how much of the truck or bridge would be destroyed if the vehicle was simply yanked or pulled out! If too much of the bridge’s concrete was broken in the process, it might cause the bridge to become unsafe. What if road equipment was brought in to cut a grove into the road under the vehicle tires to lower it? What if heavy equipment was brought in to lift the bridge just a few inches? Traffic continued to back up and discussions raged on as frustrated workers and authorities pondered this difficult problem. A crowd also gathered around the scene to watch all the exciting activity and hubbub. Then something funny happened as a worker was walking by part of the crowd and surveying the situation. A little boy who had previously been riding his bicycle, and had stopped to glare, said to the man, “Why not let the air out of the tires?”  “What?”, stated the worker in incredulous shock! “What did you say?” The boy repeated, “Why not let the air out of the tires?” From this simple observation and statement, an easy and effective solution was found to a difficult problem that had confounded some very bright and energetic people!

What the little boy demonstrated is what every effective leader needs to achieve personal success! The boy had imagination. Within his mind, he dug deep for a creative solution and envisioned the vehicle becoming shorter because the tires would lower the vehicle when air was removed from them. It was this imagination that gave the boy the resourcefulness to solve a serious problem. Sadly, most researchers tell us that we lose a part of our creativity as we age. The innovative skills we learned at play as a child become lost as we enter adulthood. However, many solutions to difficult problems are easily solved if we learn to use our imagination and mentally step outside our comfort zone. This is a common problem in business today. Many managers believe that it takes millions of dollars, and a severe culture shock to solve large problems in their organizations. Like in the example above, when mountains are made out of molehills, problem solving can become more difficult and costly than it really needs to be.

As a leader, there will be many times when emergencies, unexpected circumstances or complications arise to block the path to our goals. There will also be times when rational and analytical thinking isn’t good enough to make the right or best decision! This is where we need to use our imagination as a resource to remove or to go around the obstacle. Remember that during these kinds of demanding situations we should never panic. We need a clear head and calm emotions to think logically and rapidly. In addition, we also need to maintain our composure in order for our imagination to be most effective and help us to arrive at a wise decision. The time for passion will arise later on when we act on the decision we have made, and make it happen!

Earlier in our series on The Twelve Principles of Personal Leadership we spoke about the essential need for vision. It is a compelling vision that feeds our desire to accomplish great things in life.  Remember that our personal vision is the mental picture we have that inspires us to establish, and seek our goals during good times and bad!  In this principle we will discuss the ability to once again tap into ourimagination to solve the many problems that threaten to block us in achieving our goals. This can be especially difficult for leaders who have a “black or white” view of the world. If we define every person, event or activity as “good or bad” or “right or wrong” we greatly limit our ability to solve problems creatively. The truth is that some things are indeed “good or bad”, but most things are neutral unless they are misused. To have a healthy creative imagination to solve problems requires us to be open-minded and look for the good in others and events, not the worse.

Obviously, to solve a problem requires that we keep going forward and not quit. Imagination is the resource that helps us to plow through an obstacle! Some folks have a good vivid imagination naturally and have a reputation as an “idea person”. But most of us need to do some research, seek advice and perform some analysis to “prime the pump” of our imagination. It often requires us to think differently than we normally do. Asking a series of “what if…” questions can often spark innovative solutions. Organizations have found that the imagination generated during “brainstorming” sessions can be very productive. However, the potential solutions we ponder should always be legal, ethical and not intended to harm others. Sadly, our prisons are populated with some very creative and imaginative individuals. They allowed their imagination to be used selfishly and to harm other people.

It is also important to realize that there is usually more than one solution to most problems. Even though it is desirable to find the best solution, it is not always practical. When this occurs, be open-minded, and don’t delay making a critical decision because you are searching for the perfect answer. Some managers even use this as an excuse not to make the important decisions that need to be made. When you have faced a difficult challenge and used your imagination as a resource to discover a solution, don’t stop there!

It is not enough to have imagination as a resource if you are unwilling to make the hard decisions. Possessing the right answer without the strength or will to implement it will not solve difficult problems. Some folks are good at finding solutions, but struggle to make decisions. It is easy to understand why many leaders want to avoid making decisions. There are a number of valid reasons. First of all, it is often risky! Risk is defined as the possibility of suffering harm, loss or danger. We tend to be comfortable in our patterns and expectations. Often times making a decision means we must step out of our “comfort zone” and into the unknown. Past experiences teach us that even a slight shift in our course can have dramatic effects on an outcome. On a personal level, we may have the right answersbut avoid making decisions about our family, careers or finances because of an aversion to risk and fear of failure. Secondly, leaders often make decisions while they are slightly ahead of the prevailing group or culture. It is often a lonely, thankless experience with little visible support. This situation is often compounded greatly when the leader has not taken the time and energy to build a strong consensus among others.

But here is an important point about decision-making and risk. We will frequently come to a crossroads in life or business where an important decision must be made. Then… we have a choice to make. Either we make the decision, or “time and chance” will decide for us what we were unwilling to decide for ourselves! Either way, a decision will be made. The question is, will we take charge and assume greater control of the outcome, or will we allow luck, chance or fate to determine the outcome for us? There is an old story about two men drifting on a raft traveling down the Niagara River toward the ominous Niagara Falls. They began to argue about how far they were from the falls and when they should go ashore. The argument continued and went on and on. While they haggled and delayed making a decision, time made the decision for them, with unfortunate results.

I am not suggesting that you to lurch into ill-advised or poor decision-making. Leaders should seek the facts, get advice, do the research and resourcefully find an answer. But there does come a time when a decision…the decision must be made! It has been said that former American President and World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower once commented, “A wrong decision is better than indecision”. Think about why a military General would have made this comment. A wrong decision is at least a choice, and if that choice is wrong there if often enough time to retrench, regroup and alter the course. Creativity is flexible and can be modified early in the decision process. However, indecision only erodes precious time and often removes the option of an alternative choice from the decision maker. Sometimes the real risk is not taking one. As author and educator Gary Dessler states, “Very few decisions are forever; there is more “give” in most decisions than we realize. While many major strategic decisions are hard to reverse, most poor decisions won’t mean the end of the world for you, so don’t become frozen in the finality of your decision”.

At the heart and core of leadership is also the willingness to take personal responsibility for a difficult decision. On June 6, 1944, during World War II, General Eisenhower agonized over a difficult decision to allow Allied forces to land on the beaches of Normandy, France. The weather had been poor and threatened to derail the Allied assault. A window of opportunity was closing and it was time for decisive action. Eisenhower finally gave approval for the landing. However, he also took the time to write an “official statement” to the media in case the landing failed and the Allies were unable to secure a beachhead. In his handwritten announcement, Eisenhower accepted full responsibility for the failure. Thankfully, it was never needed!

Many experts in management believe that not all decisions are the same. They differentiate between what they call programmed and nonprogrammed decisions. Programmed decisions are defined as ones that are repetitive and can typically be resolved through rational analysis and mechanical procedures. It is believed that the overwhelming majority of decisions we make are programmeddecisions. Standard rules of deduction can be applied to these decision types. These kinds of decisions do not require a great degree of imagination.

On the other hand, nonprogrammed decisions are defined as unique in nature. These include crisis situations or when we have arrived at a personal crossroad in our life. Nonprogrammed decisions rely heavily on our judgment and values rather than clear-cut analysis. They are typically more urgent and require greater focus. We all must eventually face them… the tough agonizing decisions that often need to be based on incomplete information and unknown criteria! Sometimes there is no clear choice of what or who is absolutely right or wrong. There may be little “black and white”, but rather shades of gray. Using our positive ethics and deep-seated values as a guide, we will need to muster all the creativity and intuition we can find deep within ourselves for a solution. Because these nonprogrammed decisions are usually critical, the risk and consequences can be great, but don’t let that stop you from taking action when required!

Here are a few tips to improve your decision-making ability. Recognize the facts as they really are and not how you want to see them. It is easy to ignore or distort the truth because we already desire to support a particular answer . For example, those who study theology often fall prey to a problem called proof-texting. This is where the theologian first comes to a personal conclusion, and then looks for scriptures to support a preconceived belief.  Many scientists are also guilty of the same problem. Maintain your objectivity so your decision is based on an intelligent analysis of the actual facts and not a preconceived decision. Along with analysis, don’t be afraid to use your heart as long as it is not blinded by raw emotion! A balanced decision is one that is made from both the head and the heart. This is where you make a decision based on accumulated experience, knowledge and intuition. Remember, having firm personal values and strong ethics is the foundation of good intuition. Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud stated,

“When making a decision of minor importance I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of our personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”

Obviously if the deep inner needs of our nature are centered on integrity and genuine concern for others, our intuition will serve us well. Another decision-making tip is to be careful not to use shortcuts to save time. A common shortcut is called heuristics. This is used to speed up decision-making by applying “rules of thumb” to quickly reach a conclusion. For example, a senior manager may say, “I only want individuals with advanced degrees to apply for this position”. Yes, this may speed up the selection process, but may also mean the best qualified or most talented individual is not even considered for the position. The final tip I offer is to avoid anchoring. The trait of anchoring is where we give too much credence to the first communication or set of facts that we hear. This first bit of information then becomes the benchmark by which the decision will be made and later information that is contrary to it is dismissed or minimized.

So the next time you are confronted with the need to make a decision, remember the little boy gazing at the truck stuck under a bridge. The best answer will require using your imagination as a resource. Challenge yourself to think differently and from a fresh perspective. When you have made a decision and an answer is at hand, don’t stop there! A leader’s calling is to make the hard decisions when they are needed. No one said the job is easy! Yes, there is a risk to decision-making, but there is often a greater risk when we do nothing and allow fate to decide for us. So be sure you gather the facts, get sound advice, and do the necessary research. Then make the decision. If you get stuck… maybe you need to just step back and look at things differently. Perhaps you will even need to let some of the air out!


About the author:

 Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 13 years that of Regional Sales Manager.  He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. Greg has a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University where he presently serves as an adjunct professor teaching courses in business management and leadership. He is also the president and founder of weLEAD Incorporated.

  • Quote of the Day

    “Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.”

    — Brian Tracy