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Leadership and Imagination: A cool story, resources, and tools

Really, the only way to start this blog is with a story I heard from Irvans Augustin of Urban Impact Labs, at a convening of the Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunities Initiative funded by the Kresge Foundation. A group of organizers in Miami wanted to do something about transit problems.They looked at the lack of transit access in high-density neighborhoods where the FEC railroad line passed and didn’t stop. They brought together community organizations and identified a perfect underpass parking space for a pop-up train station adjacent to the FEC line that would be an ideal transit stop. They came up with a brand for a transit system, the Purple Line, a transit line that would provide equitable service to neighborhoods throughout the city. They then began to plan a train station opening at this location and with the social media buzz in people’s minds it became a real grand opening for a train station. Within a couple of months’ people started coming up and saying how cool that there would be a station in this location. For the weekend-long grand opening, 25 collaborating businesses organized the event with container cars, artists who decorated the parking lot with transit maps, train noises, local restaurants serving food and a DIY crosswalk. Thousands of people attended the Purple Line opening, and many expected a grand opening for an actual train station. Even a public official who thought it was a real train station opening showed up.

The organizers wondered if there would be a backlash when people realized that it was a grand opening for a transit stop that didn’t yet exist. There was palpable disappointment and then people said, “Why don’t we have a train station here?!” The project reached tens of thousands of people through social media and led to other demonstration projects. People began to think differently about their voice and role in the city. This led to the formation of a political action committee and the appointment of a commissioner focused on improving transit options. You can read more about the Purple Line in a blog post here from Urban Impact Lab’s website. 

Irvans and other Purple Line organizers drew on and added their own creative flare to a model from Texas called Better Block. Better Block started in 2010 when a group of community organizers and neighbors decided to actually show people what could be done with one underutilized commercial block that was filled with vacant properties and lots. A group took over the block, put up temporary stores, planters, lights and invited community and city leaders out to see how reviving one block could improve safety and health, and promote business.

What struck me about these stories was the role of imagination, especially tapping collective imagination as an engagement and leadership strategy. In the leadership development world, we often touch on this when we talk about the importance of vision. Donella Meadow’s has developed a vision tool that we shared in an earlier blog post. I have used this template with groups, and with surprising results. I tried out Donella’s visioning exercise with a group of 40 people who ran health-focused leadership programs. As we were debriefing the exercise two notable things occurred. People first noticed that when they were asked to close their eyes and imagine the world ten years from now if they were successful beyond their wildest dreams, what they saw were plentiful farmers markets, people walking, children playing in parks, etc. This was interesting given that most of the people were supporting leadership in health professions focused on care and delivery, and not prevention, lifestyle, and environment. What was even more surprising was the emotional impact of the exercise. One tearful participant appreciated the opportunity to be reminded of why she was really doing the work she did and lamented how easy it is to get lost in the weeds of problems you have to navigate and lose your north star. Visioning is an important part of personal reflection and leadership work, but what about the collective dimensions of imagination and vision for people working together?

Two leadership programs I know of (I bet and hope that there are more) have figured out how to help groups engage in visioning together, both using modeling. I had the opportunity to participate in a session Theory U process where Otto Scharmer used a collective modeling process. The group was asked to create a

model of the current system, in this case, it was HIV/AIDs in a specific region. After talking about the model we were then invited to make the changes to the model that needed to occur to support the future we wanted to realize. I was so moved and impressed by this process, we replicated it with the LLC Board in an exploration of the changes that need to occur in the field of leadership to promote more inclusive, networked and collective models of leadership. To learn more about how we did it and what we learned read the early blog: Exploring Complex Questions While Having Fun.

The Wildflowers Institute works with communities to identify and support informal leaders who may not have “official” positions but have earned the trust of their communities through hard work. These leaders become fellows and are engaged in the Wildflowers Model-Building process using blocks and figurines to build models that represent how things work in their lives. The models are distilled into maps of their unified vision for the future. These collective visioning opportunities can be powerful exercises for helping those who are leading and learning together to unleash greater creativity by together imagining a new future. These are important leadership tools and resources for collective leadership. The Purple Line project raised the ante even higher. What if part of leadership work is not only unleashing imagination but giving people a practical taste of a different reality and possible future!


*Top Image from the Urban Impact Labs site.