By Tanya de Hoog (Principal and possibility explorer; MEd Imaginative K-12 Leadership)
Before I started inquiring into the role of imagination in leadership, I used to think that imagination was a thing that belonged to a select group of gifted artists and thinkers. I did not count myself as one of them. Over time, I’ve come to understand that this couldn’t be further from the truth. The ability to imagine is a uniquely human quality that we all possess. Our capacity to imagine new possibilities is what propels us to new heights. Imagination enables the breakthroughs that give birth to creativity and innovation. Imagination permeates everything we do, including leadership. We are what we imagined, and we become what we imagine. As an educational leader, I strive to lead with imagination within my school’s context by encouraging and exploring possibilities that lead to opportunities for impactful teaching and learning to shape a more just, equitable, and beautiful future.
Just as a prism amplifies the full spectrum of light, people amplify the full spectrum of imagination.
Leading with imagination involves prioritizing people instead of outcomes, learning instead of achievement, improvement instead of change, iteration instead of perfection, and simplicity instead of complexity. Leading with imagination is an infinite cycle of possibility posing and opportunity finding that invites active reflection and reflective action. Just as a prism amplifies the full spectrum of light, people amplify the full spectrum of imagination. I liken the role of imagination in leadership to white light passing through a prism to reveal the full spectrum of light. Imagination is the white light source that passes into the prism. The prism represents the people who envision and bring possibilities to life. The visible spectrum of light that emerges from the white light (imagination) passing through the prism (people) represents a powerful metaphor for the full range of the impacts of leading with imagination—the ultimate effects being our impact on our students and communities.
For me, leading with imagination begins with posing beautiful questions. Beautiful questions invite collaboration and inquiry to consider how best to respond to them. My beautiful question prompts for leading with imagination include:
- Why did/do we…?;
- What if we…?;
- How might we…?; and,
- Why should we…?
At the start of each school year, I craft one or two beautiful questions for our staff to explore throughout the year related to school-wide strategic initiatives. For example, to support a strategic initiative related to wellness, I posed the beautiful question, “How might we remain balanced and open-minded as we strive to keep everyone physically and psychologically safe over the coming school year?”. Teachers also frame beautiful questions that guide their annual professional growth plans. In addition, I set a yearly theme with students that I explore with them at our assemblies that also has a beautiful question to go along with it to provoke action and reflection. An example of a yearly theme is “Take action to grow”. The related beautiful question is, “How might I take action to grow as a learner and peer?”. Teachers also adopt the theme and related beautiful question to help frame classroom conversations.
Empathy has also become a cornerstone of how I lead with imagination. Human-centred design thinking processes can amplify opportunities for empathy and collaboration when embarking on school improvement projects. By genuinely seeking ways to listen to others’ histories, experiences, and perspectives, we can create the space for connection, compassion, and inclusion.
For example, we used a design thinking approach to engage our entire school community in an improvement process to recalibrate our assessment practices and communication of learning system. We began the process with a “how might we…” beautiful question to invite stakeholders to partner with us. Next, we surveyed stakeholders and asked them to participate in empathy interviews to learn about their values, perspectives, concerns, and questions. Conducting focus groups enabled us to solicit feedback on our plans and empowered us to iterate even more. Throughout the process, we learned about what stakeholders value. We also learned about what confused them and where more education was needed to move our vision forward successfully. Anchoring a significant school improvement process in empathy and human-centred design helped us see new possibilities and pursue pathways and opportunities that we had not envisioned, resulting in a far better outcome than we initially imagined.
The art of leading with imagination to actualize a more just, equitable, and beautiful future involves intentionally inquiring into and discerning which possibilities reveal the pathways forward that will enable our students and communities to thrive.
Analogies, metaphors, and limits and extremes also help me engage with stakeholders and build shared understanding. For example, in my welcome back communications to teachers at the start of each school year, I use an analogy (e.g. boarding a flight, navigating uncharted waters) to help us reconnect after a long break and shift our thinking toward the vision for the year ahead. In addition, I often use metaphors when communicating with parents to build a shared understanding of education-related concepts. For example, I used a kite metaphor to illustrate the difference between learning and achievement. Finally, using limits and extremes can help tease apart and deepen understanding of complex issues and concepts. For example, to help teachers understand the importance of inclusive policy revision processes and their significant role in policy implementation, we spent a professional learning meeting examining policy outcomes as locks and keys. This enabled teachers to appreciate that some policies (e.g. student safety) need to be “locks” while others (e.g. inclusion) can be “keys” that open doors or remove barriers.
In my research into instructional leadership and the role of imagination in it, I interviewed principals about their instructional leadership practices. Although none of the principals used the word imagination or imaginative to describe their instructional leadership, they identified many practices illustrating the significant role of imagination in relationship building, instructional capacity building, and systems building. Educational leaders can grow their imaginative capacity by using tools and practices that invite possibilities and create opportunities. Identifying the tools and techniques that empower imagination in leadership is an essential step toward legitimizing the role of imagination in school and instructional leadership. The art of leading with imagination to actualize a more just, equitable, and beautiful future involves intentionally inquiring into and discerning which possibilities reveal the pathways forward that will enable our students and communities to thrive.