Think of the visions that great leaders have had. Alexander the Great wanted to create a world where Greek democracy was the norm. Genghis Khan wanted to unite all of the Asian people from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. Napoleon wanted a united Europe. Thomas Jefferson wanted a land where every citizen had the right to pursue his or her own vision of life, liberty and happiness. Martin Luther King had a dream that little black children and little white children could someday tread the streets of Atlanta and Birmingham hand in hand as equals. Mother Teresa had a vision of feeding the hungry and the poor in one of the poorest nations on the earth. Dr. Edward W. Deming believed in a vision of quality enabled by an enlightened management that used data and statistics as the backbone of process control.

Each of these visions was founded upon an imagination that went well beyond what anyone could have dreamed possible. Great visions are based upon great imaginations. An imaginative mind is the foundation for all new endeavors and enterprises. Just think how many great leaders have been told “It’s impossible, you cannot do that.” “Look Hannibal, you cannot cross the Alps with elephants.” “Caesar, your men will not follow you across the Rubicon.” “Shaka, you are an outsider, you will never be accepted within the Zulus much less ever be a leader.” “Dr. Deming, management will never accept your ideas, they are too entrenched in their own way of doing things.” Only a mind willing to accept the impossible and absurd is able to conjure up a vision that the rest of humanity laughs at.

A great imagination is founded on being able to change the absurd into reality. When great leaders are confronted by the absurd, they marshal the resources to make the absurd plausible. The Free Online Dictionary defines the absurd as: “Ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable.” People flying, living under the sea, walking on the moon, wearing artificial prosthetic devices and a rocker named Lady Gaga who is listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. None of these things are possible without an imagination that can transcend reality. Imagination spurns the commonplace to embrace the absurd. Einstein put it well when he said:

 “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Most organizations are not designed to either foster or sustain imagination. Organizations are built on a foundation of conformance to existing specifications. The typical organization expects members to follow rules and procedures and to fit in with established corporate norms. People are hired because they fit in. To become a part of most organizations, applicants must run a gauntlet of interviews by as many as fifteen different people. Anyone standing out, looking odd, expressing creative ideas or willing to challenge the “way we do things around here” will not get through the gauntlet. Once onboard, most organizations cannot recognize imagination let alone reward it. As Thomas Kuhn showed in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, new paradigms are rejected by the existing structure and establishment. Rewarding imagination in a corporate setting is like yelling fire in a crowded theater. The result is chaos and pandemonium. Anyone foolish enough to try such a tactic is relegated to the status of crazy sick person or outsider.

Fortunately, history is full of examples of great leaders who have imagination and were not afraid to challenge the system. However, the really sad part of the story is that everyone (every employee) has a great imagination and the lack of use costs American industry billions of dollars each year. Compare the corporate Japanese suggestion programs wherein thousands of ideas tendered by employees are acknowledged, rewarded and implemented each year. In America, we have suggestion boxes on the walls wherein barely one or two ideas are submitted each week. Among those that are submitted, the usual tendency is to try to weed out as many as possible, since their implementation will just disrupt the status quo and make more work for management. I am not talking theoretically here. I have seen this situation in many companies from 1980 until the present time. When will it change?

When will American industry realize that the backbone and foundation of every great strategic decision, every new product or service, every great business idea, every quality improvement, every innovation and every strategic vision is imagination. Without imagination, we can only keep doing the same things over and over again. Imagination is the key to success in the 21st century economy. Organizations that can harness the power of imagination will survive and grow. Those that ignore the power of imagination will become footnotes in history.