IMAGINATION: a key leadership skill

Confusing mishmash of roads and contradictory road signsI was talking with a client this morning about the challenges we’re all facing  because of the coronavirus pandemic.

We were discussing the fact that there are people who are doing things the way they’ve always done them, even though this isn’t effective or appropriate or useful since things aren’t how they’ve always been.

And it occured to me that these people are lacking a key leadership and management skill: imagination.

Not the sort of imagination that dreams up every dire outcome.

The sort of imagination that inspires flexibility and responsiveness, instead of same-same rule-following. The sort of imagination that takes in changing context and new situations and sees potential options and alternatives. The sort of imagination that can then evaluate those options and imagine which might be the best, so they can be tried out.

The good news is that this type of imagination can be learned. Yes, some people seem to naturally be more imaginative than others. But you can learn to flex your imagination muscle and develop the awareness necessary to navigate any type of challenge that comes your way.

First: stop

Imagination needs time and space to explore. If you’re following routine out of habit, imagination is sound asleep.



It may not be easy. When we’re stressed or anxious, the usual tendency is to HURRY UP, DO SOMETHING. But that “something” is almost certainly going to be what you’ve always done, which – in a rapidly-changing, unique time – isn’t going to be effective.

Second: observe

Look at what’s happening.

What’s different? What new needs are emerging?

Trust me. There are new needs. 

Run through the day in your mind. Note the places where things are changing. How do those changes impact you? Your team? Your co-workers? Your boss? Your customers or clients? And so on.

Write down what you observe in this mental exploration.

Yes, really. If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember it. Plus, you need written notes for the next step.

Third: imagine

Look at each instance of new needs and change that you’ve identified.

What do you and your team need to do to make those changes as easy as possible for all concerned?

How can you respond differently? What can you do differently?

Which of the things you’ve Always Done no longer make sense?

What new action, process, or policy would better support your team and your customers?

Write them down.

Fourth: evaluate

Not every idea you imagine will be feasible. Some ideas will violate a non-negotiable company principle or value. Some ideas will just be too complex to implement.

Follow the KISS principle, which I prefer to articulate as
Keep  ISimple, Sweetie.

What’s easiest – simplest! – to implement?

And how much training will your team need?

Preferably, all you’ll have to do is explain a new process. Possibly, you’ll need to make sure everyone knows how to apply the new process.

For instance, how far apart is six feet for effective social distancing?

What is proper technique for wearing and removing gloves – if gloves are appropriate in your case? I saw employees in one office who were wearing gloves, handling people’s paperwork, touching their face, returning paperwork, and never swapped out their gloves. Nice try, but…clearly they hadn’t been trained on glove protocol.*

Fifth: implement

Go forth and do things the new way.

Really. It’s that simple.

But if you don’t allow your imagination to wake up and explore, you’ll just keep doing things the Same Old Way, even when it’s not working.

Habit and routine are comforting in times of stress and challenge – no question. Hang onto the habits that are useful, as I described in this article  and this video on managing a remote team.

But at the same time, if you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them without pausing to consider what might work better, you won’t be responding to the changes that are happening right now, and that will undoubtedly continue to happen.

And that, bluntly, puts your job and your career at risk. Because your managers are watching how you respond, and they’re looking for leadership potential and capacity.

* A safety side note: wearing gloves may make you feel safer, but bear in mind that all you’re doing is replacing the surface of your hand (i.e., your skin) with the glove surface. If you touch your face whilst wearing the glove, it’s no different from touching your face without the glove. If you cough into your hand while wearing the glove, or if you touch something someone else has touched after coughing, you’re still potentially transferring the virus.

Assuming you cannot simply stay home, the most effective thing you can do is use soap and water often. Hand sanitizer is a second-best. If you’re convinced you need to wear gloves, change them often, using proper removal technique.

Finally, I wish I knew who to credit for this, but there’s no name attached even though it’s been making the rounds of social media. In our house, we’ve started calling the coronavirus “glitter” – as in, “Did you wash the glitter off your hands?” It’s a great way to think about the unseen virus as something we’ve all experienced getting everywhere.

Written analogy of the coronavirus as glitter and how glitter spreads