The Origin of Leaders #1: Imagination – Developing your most powerful human talent

by Conor Neill on November 5, 2010

One of the most sought after answers in our society is perhaps to the question “Where do leaders come from?” We depend greatly on them, but what do we do to ensure that the future has the people with the leadership capability that we will need.  If they are born, there is not much to do. If they can be developed, then we have a responsibility to systematize the process by which great leaders can be created.

Recent research in talent, in leadership, in accomplishment and human development is leaning further and further towards the development through experience path.  Malcolm Gladwell has made famous the concept of “10,000” hours in his book Outliers.  If you practice for 10,000 hours you will become world class.

If you practice for 10,000 hours…

…What should you practice?

This leads to the question: What is at the core of leadership?  What are the habits of successful leaders?  The Origin of Leaders is a journey through these traits and a reflection on how previously successful leaders have been able to develop these skills.

Welcome to the journey.  I look forward to your comments.

Imagination: the nucleus.

Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity expert you may know from TED, gives a great speech about what it is that has brought humanity from living in caves to living in skyscrapers, speaking on mobile phones, reading on kindles, traveling in jets and building rocket ships.

I watched the film “Inception” last week with my family.  What is the most enduring parasite?  “An idea”.

Imagination, also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses.  It is seeing something that is not yet here.  It is seeing a different future.  It is seeing a combination of existing products that has not yet been tried.

Why is imagination so important?

Imagination defines humanity

Genetically we differ 2% from chimpanzees and 3% from worms. It is not our genes that have us living in penthouses and connecting on facebook.  Our difference is The human cortex, the layer of brain that is most highly developed in humans, is very young in evolutionary terms – but crucial in every other respect.   The cortex is where we begin to live intentionally.  We don’t just respond to the world, but can begin to see a new world and thus plan and act accordingly.

The unique gift of humanity is reason, the ability to solve problems in the mind, to imagine.

2,300 years ago in the Greek city-state of Athens, Aristotle asked himself “what is the purpose of human life?”  Aristotle defined the purpose of an object as being that which it can uniquely do.  A human is alive – but plants are also alive – so that cannot be human purpose.  A human feels – but animals also feel – so that cannot be human purpose. The unique gift of humanity is reason, the ability to solve problems in the mind, to imagine.

Aristotle concludes the Ethics with a discussion of the highest form of happiness: a life of intellectual contemplation.   Reasoned imagination is the highest virtue.

The second reason is driven by the requirements of a leader. A leader must see a future that is not yet here.  The clearer you can see and touch and feel this potential future the more compellingly you can communicate it to others.

How can you develop your imagination? Here are some ways:

  • Spend time bored.  Read fiction.  Write a new ending to a classic book.  Make a hero into a villain, and a hero into a villain. Write yourself into the book.
  • Throw photos on the floor and then explain the connection between them
  • Watch TV in another language and explain to a friend what is happening
  • Visualize a horse with sheep’s coat and a dolphin’s head.  Imagine a rubber car.
  • List 10 small improvements you could make to the seat you are sitting on
  • Tell bedtime stories
  • Develop 2×2 matrix on an area of interest…  and develop scenarios for changing positions
  • Write a new ending for Seinfeld, CSI, M*A*S*H, Desperate Housewives, SITC…  or your favorite show
  • Go to an ethnic restaurant and order something you have never had before
  • Go to a railroad station or airport and take the first train or plane to depart
  • Imagine a world without oil, cars, telephones, internet…  fill in the blank…

Develop the courage to share.  Leadership is emotional labor, when you are doing it right; it puts you on the edge.  In the words of Scott Belsky, author of Making Ideas Happen, you must “break the stigma of self-marketing”.  Learn the difference between the skeptics (good) and the cynics (get away from them).  Please share your results here.

The next post in this series looks at another vital component of leaders.  It is a characteristic that is required to achieve success.  No company has ever achieved market leadership when this characteristic has not been part of its CEO.

Stay tuned!

Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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  • http://twitter.com/Rogercparker Roger C. Parker

    Dear Conor:
    Welcome to the Active Garage. I look forward to seeing where you go as you develop the theme started in this installment.
    Roger

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Thanks Roger – I am here thanks to plenty of good inspiration from you. Best. Conor

  • http://twitter.com/mkokc Mike Koehler

    Wow. this is a great blog. We've been thinking a lot about creativity and the future here in Oklahoma City. Sir Ken Robinson is just one of the featured speakers at the Creativity World Forum coming up Nov. 15-17. Wow. Check out the lineup at http://www.stateofcreativity.com

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Thanks Mike. Good luck with your event!

  • Pingback: The origin of leaders #3: Learning – Growing through the crucibles in your life « Active Garage

  • Riskyandfunky

    Mejor todavía   que Tell bedtime stories   es que tu hijos te las cuenten.Potencias su capacidad de imaginar,  de expresar la imaginación y tu aprendes de esos cerebros benditos…

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Me gusta – aun mejor que creas la capacidad en ellos 😉

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