Imagination and Leadership

Albert Einstein once said: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination fuels our minds and pushes us past the status quo to see what is possible. Imagination has always been the leadership thread inspiring us to a better future. Think of a few American imaginative greats: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr. All had a vision of something greater than their current circumstances.  

I was recently invited to Disney World – to tour their imagination campus and listen to presentations on the importance of fostering imagination. Disney is a model for leadership and innovation and is intentional about its use of creativity. Many Disney leaders referenced mentors or teachers who sparked or boosted their imaginations, enabling them to take their careers to higher levels. Disney’s emphasis on imagination encouraged me to explore this topic more deeply, especially in coaching/leadership.  

Imagination in coaching is not a “hot” topic – rarely is it discussed in clinics, offices, or locker rooms. Though, as the stress of this past season wanes and the optimism for the subsequent season increases, exploring our imagination might be just what your team needs.

Imagination engages the brain/mind into new ideas or mental images not yet seen. How does this apply to leadership or influence? Think of Jefferson’s words in 1776 – all men are created equal – he lived in a time when elitism ran amok with only the rich and educated having influence. Think Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address in 1864, as the Civil War was concluding, Lincoln closed with, – With malice toward none and charity for allwhile most people in the North were thinking of revenge, retribution, and justice – Lincoln was thinking of forgiveness. Think of Susan B. Anthony; when women were treated as second-class citizens, she advocated suffrage, equality, and fairness, famously stating that failure is impossible. Lastly, think of the great Martin Luther King, Jr. – when racial segregation was the norm – he declared, I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.   These inspiring leaders’ thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors all pointed to a better future – each vision – more extraordinary than their circumstances.

On the contrary, let’s review one historical example where leaders failed to use their imagination. In 1861 the greatest generals of the day fought in the Civil War, the first war after the Industrial Revolution. Though these once revered leaders relied on the best practices of the day – they did not adjust to the changing times and improved technology. (After all, it worked in the Mexican War, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War.) The leaders’ antiquated strategies combined with the newly available cutting-edge technology led to widespread slaughter and mass casualties. The lack of imagination of these leaders clearly underserved those in their charge.  

The coaching industry also has had examples of old-fashioned approaches to contemporary challenges. Here are a few: slow to correlate water use and performance (water is for the weak mentality). Or the resistance to full utilization of a trainer or strength coach (I’ll manage my team). Or being behind the times on concussion protocol (they just had their bell rung attitude). Or, perhaps, diminishing the use of data analytics (I do my scouting – no need for all the numbers nonsense).  

Though just a few examples, the confidence of past success or mentors, we (leaders) are often slow to respond to contemporary challenges or anticipate problems that may arise – believing what worked in the past will undoubtedly work this upcoming year.  

One challenge on the frontier of the leadership arena is the overall wellness of those in our charge. More than the physical condition, the mindset and wellness of student-athletes are topics coaches can not ignore. Time would be – well spent – engaging your imagination, widening your resources, and discussing with your staff how to approach your athletes’ overall mind, body, and spirit.

One leader looking beyond the status quo in the wellness arena is Coach Greg Kampe, the men’s basketball coach at Oakland University. In speaking to a group of educators on leadership – after emphasizing the importance of “non-negotiables” – principles that last the test of time – he encouraged a “newer” model of leadership, a more contemporary approach. Referring to a Malcolm X quote, Coach Kampe urged – If you substitute the letter “i” in illness for the letters “we,” – you get wellness.  Coach Kampe encouraged a fresh, flexible approach to leadership, more inclusive and mindful of a “team perspective” – to the varying/more recent challenges of the day, such as mental wellness.  

Addressing the overall wellness of those in our charge is just one of the challenges on the front door steps of coaching. Like the greats of our past – employing our imagination and collaborating with experts will help meet the future needs and provide a more “forward” approach to leadership – ultimately producing the best opportunity to connect and positively impact the athletes in our charge.

During the season – our brain is often in stress mode – less so in creation mode. With extra time and less pressure this off-season – take time to engage your imagination to move your program forward – beyond past experiences.  

Curiosity is the fuel that engages the brain, opens us to possibility, and pushes us past the status quo. The questions we ask ourselves open the doors to our imagination. To spark your imagination and awaken possibilities, take this off-season to reflect and ask yourself these key questions: If I was ahead of my time – what techniques and strategies might I be employing?  What challenges are my athletes facing that they did not face a few years ago? How have my tactics changed to fit today’s or tomorrow’s challenges? How am I a different coach today than I was in the past? How will I adapt from this past season to this upcoming season?

I wish you all a restful and restorative off-season. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you would ever like to chat or have me work with your staff or program. You can DM me on Twitter @coachmassucci or email me at [email protected].  

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