4 Ways Leaders Stand in the Way of Imagination and Creativity

Being able to think outside the box and solve problems creatively are two of the most critical leadership skills in the 21st century. The more our world grows in complexity, the more useful it becomes to use imagination and creativity to collectively develop solutions to challenges.

A recent IBM survey  of 1,500 CEOs across 33 industries and 60 countries determined that creativity is one of the most sought-after traits. This, of course, makes sense. Creativity is a requirement for innovation, and innovation is a requirement for the sustainable success of any organization in every industry.

In order to encourage consistent innovation, leaders must know how to unleash the creative potential in their people. Even when we, as leaders, struggle with unleashing our own creative thinking, we must still be able to nurture, support and challenge creative thinking within our people.

Let’s take a look at 4 things leaders can do to encourage imagination and creativity.

1. Remove the Box.

I have often heard people talk about “getting outside the box” or “expanding the box”. I use these terms myself all the time. In fact, in the first sentence of this post I used the phrase, “think outside the box”. But, what if we could just get rid of the box altogether?

While preventing open discussion and debate over difficult issues can sometimes feel like the wise choice, it can also create walls that stop creativity dead in its tracks. When people stop providing ideas, organizations suffer. Innovation comes to a standstill.

One of the ways leaders do this inadvertently is by sticking to the same structure, the same format, adhering to the same rules, and ignoring new ideas. In other words, putting up the walls of the box and then telling our people to think outside them.

Imagination truly only flourishes with freedom.

2. Stop being such a control freak.

Want to strip people of their creativity, passion or drive? Micromanage them. Control every aspect of their job, over involve yourself in projects, and make sure every single decision must go through you. Ok. So, you’re probably not that much of a control freak. But, the point is, micromanagement will kill morale and imagination every single time.

If your goal is to create an environment that fosters imagination, you must give your people room to breathe, try new things, and even make mistakes. To restate my earlier sentiment… Imagination only flourishes with freedom.

3. It’s hard to think creatively when everyone thinks the same way.

Diverse groups are more creative, plain and simple. If your team consists of people that have similar backgrounds, similar experience, and similar ways of looking at the world, it’s going to be pretty difficult to get unique ideas from them. Expand the boundaries by accessing wisdom from other industries, encouraging your people to join diverse organizations, and hiring people that are likely to disrupt the status quo.

4. Don’t turn “feedback” into a four-letter word.

One of the things that kills honest feedback right out of the gate is making titles and seniority part of the process. Feedback is not only something that should be distributed from the top down. Dismantle the notion that only certain people in your organization have the ability, or the right, to provide feedback and criticism. When people know that their contribution will be listened to and taken seriously, leaders create a space of trust, honesty and safety that supports creative thinking.

As with most things in life, we must own our responsibility in supporting, or suppressing, imagination and the fallout of encouraging creative thinking.

When challenges arise, as they always do, disowning the problem is never the right idea. Creating an environment of creative thinkers is not only a challenge in and of itself, it’s bound to create additional problems. But, creating a team that can experiment and take risks, a team that knows there is always a choice and a solution, a team that actively works to create change, is the only path to success.

After all, it’s those impactful conversations – those “a-ha!” moments – that allow people AND organizations to flourish.


About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.


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