"We have lost imagination in leadership"

Written by
Mary Appleton

15 Mar 2018

15 Mar 2018 • by Mary Appleton

Organisations claim to want bold, creative people, but few seem to get them. What's the solution?

In the view of Future Talent speaker and author Margaret Heffernan, people do their best work when they are not afraid, when they are working with others they care about and respect, and surrounded by people who enjoy the success of others.

Sadly, few organisations have such an environment, which Heffernan puts down to an “unhealthy obsession” with metrics, resulting in a culture of fear. “[People] are being measured in such stupid ways that the risk of failure is always with them. That is a poor environment for innovation and for genuinely creative work,” she says.

Imagination in management

“Many organisations are so indoctrinated in the belief that ‘if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter’, that the only thing that will change that belief is for them to fail,” argues Heffernan.

“They believe that measuring everything will somehow provide reassurance to the board that all is fine. It’s not fine. But as long as we produce numbers, we like to persuade ourselves we are fine.”

Every time you introduce a measurement, Heffernan believes, you draw attention away from something else. She urges you to think about what really matters that can’t be measured, and how you, as a leader, are reinforcing that within your business. “The job of management is to think about how I create an environment in which the people I have brought here can do their best work,” she insists. “What is getting in the way and what do people need? Leadership is not about being a policeman.”

The job of real leaders is to think about what else can be done better, what is missing, and what would make a difference. “We have lost imagination in management and it’s the job of real leaders to retrieve that.”

Born in Texas, brought up in Holland and educated at Cambridge University, Heffernan began her career at the BBC, where she produced TV programmes for 13 years, before moving to the US where she started a career in software, joining CMGI. Here, she ran, bought and sold leading internet businesses, serving as CEO for InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation.

“I have always been something of a geek, and I thought [technology and the internet] was the most exciting thing happening at that time. It was completely new and different. Contrary to popular belief, software engineering requires such imagination and actually wasn’t that different from the arts,” she recalls. “It was the most fun of my life – working with very creative people, willing to imagine things that did not yet exist.”

She has since gone on to write a number of bestselling books, including Wilful Blindness, named one of the Financial Times’ business books of the decade, and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 6 million people.

Heffernan’s background working with some of the world’s finest artists informed her argument at the Future Talent Conference, urging delegates to look to the arts for inspiration in business. She highlighted the resilience, courage and drive that artists use to find meaning. “They’re not interested in second guessing, because it’s so unoriginal,” she said. “It’s about giving enough, and being open to receive enough, to create trust between people, so that together you can do this really hard, demanding, often frightening work.”

It is this approach that Heffernan believes should be used in the business world much more, particularly as we attempt to navigate the near-blinding pace of change and ambiguity. “People are motivated when they feel visible, when bosses care and think about them. When did we forget this? It is obvious, but we have become so dazzled by an economic way of thinking we have forgotten what we are here for.”

Blinded by fear

In Heffernan’s view, most companies today are characterised by fear, led by people who are afraid of failure, afraid to listen, too busy to engage, and so focused on a fashionable definition of success that they have lost the capacity to think for themselves. This, she believes, results in them constantly feeling unprepared.

But in a world that is characterised by change and uncertainty, surely it is difficult to feel prepared if you never know what is coming next?

“If you work with uncertainty all the time and get used to the idea of it, when you encounter profound uncertainty, it’s not scary, it’s business as usual and you get on with it. What is striking is that uncertainty doesn’t faze artists,” she continues. “They don’t look for the success recipe.”

The ubiquity of technology has, according to Heffernan, prompted business leaders to “forget” the role of imagination, which she believes will result in us losing our ability to innovate.

“An unintentional side effect of managing people as though they were machines is that we have made it phenomenally easy to replace people with machines. It’s not the tech that did that, it was us,” she says. “We took out the meaning of work so spectacularly that in many organisations, the difference between work being done by a machine and a person is negligible. Yet we know that work gives people enormous meaning, connectedness and community, so we have to retrieve that and find better ways to do it.”

Being able to think beyond your own domain is of critical importance, yet most people cannot do this because they are overworked. This, in turn, makes them “stale, boring and bored”, believes Heffernan. “Their managers say they are uncreative, so they make the classic mistake of thinking they need to change people but actually, the people have the wrong environment and values, so the consequence is taking great people and making them useless,” she adds.

Heffernan admits that, in her work with sports teams, she was surprised by the way they consider the social and emotional aspect of the team “in the way that is smarter than most of what I have seen in business”.

“I thought people in sport only think about winning, but that’s not true. They win by thinking about all the factors that allow people to do their best work. They know for sure their work is uncertain and emotional. You can’t rehearse the match, and you can’t repeat it. They live in a world that is strangely characteristic of the uncertain environment which the business world is suddenly surprised to find itself in.”

Creativity over predictability

Heffernan would like to see a future working world where leaders acknowledge that people are not widgets, or defined by measurements.

“I would like to see more robust conversations around what it is that people want/need at work and how can we give it to them. I want to see organisations emphasising freedom over control and valuing creativity over predictability and standardisation.

“Peter Drucker once said that what humans crave is to be understood. That’s what people want at work and in life – but no one in their right mind thinks their annual performance review grade is a form of understanding,” she quips.

“At the heart of a great relationship is the sense of being understood, and that is what leaders need to master.”