John Baldoni, leadership development chair at N2Growth, is an executive coach and the author of many books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership. This blog first appeared at www.forbes.com.
How can a one-footed worm kick a soccer ball?
You cannot “put too much thought into such things… [Y]ou have to allow room for imagination and just let things be as they are,” replied Richard Scary, Jr., son of the famous children’s author speaking about one of his father’s greatest creations, Lowly Worm.
The above question was posed tongue in cheek by Scott Simon of NPR’s Morning Edition Saturday. The interview was conducted in connection to the publication of The Best Lowly Book Ever, which was initiated by his father (who died in 1994) but finished by the son, known as Huck Scary. Judging from the interview, Huck has the same kind of wit and humor that his father depicted in his books, which are treasured by parents for their wit and children for their imaginative turns and both for their style and beauty.
Most important, as is evident from Scary senior’s work is a respect for his audience. Richard Scary “loved to put a lot of things on the pages so the children would have a lot to look at, and he also wanted the parents to have a good time.” Scary wanted to entertain children by catering to their own vivid and fanciful imaginations. A child won’t question how a worm can kick a ball. That’s a question for grown ups.
It has become an axiom that as children mature they lose their sense of imagination. Certainly the structures of formal education — coupled at times with a need for conformity — does not encourage imagination and in some areas it is devalued. That said, the world has been shaped by the creative energies of people who refused to stop imagining, whether they were at drawing table or a research bench, or work on CAD screen or managing a new business. Creativity abounds.
Part of the imaginative process is as Huck Scary, pointed out is to stop thinking literally. There is a need for literalism in learning the basics of one’s discipline, or disciplines like science, engineering and medicine, but once we have the rules down we can innovate to our hearts content.
A perfect metaphor for such thinking is jazz, an oft-cited example of free flowing creativity. Jazz musicians will often begin with a standard tune – be it by Harold Arlen or Dave Brubeck – and after playing the melody, the basic thirty-two bars will let it rip into an improvisational tour de force that accents the musicianship of the combo. Think Charlie Parker with his dazzling riffs, Miles Davis with his soaring trumpet solos, or Oscar Peterson with his classically inspired piano maneuverings. It sounds incredible in the hands of such masters. What we forget however is the hours of practice that talented musicians pour into their crafts in order to create sounds that sound spontaneous and unencumbered.
Creativity then is based on substance which in turn becomes transformed by the energy that an artist, scientist or entrepreneur expends in producing something new and something different. Most importantly, as we see in the work of Richard Scary as well as in jazz, there is always purpose. The phrase creativity for its own sake gives short shrift to the intention that creator gives to the work.
Management by nature is administrative. It is designed to make things work operationally. At the same time management without innovation becomes stale and stolid; it degenerates into bureaucracy where policy dictates behavior to denigration of the individual.
Managers then need to fight back against burdensome bureaucracy in order to enable individuals and teams to think clearly and freshly. Why? So they can contribute purposefully. Creativity nurtures the organization and for that reason it must be fostered and stimulated.
Time spent reading Richard Scary – or other great children’s authors – might be a good place to learn how to turn off our literal mindedness in favor of imagining as a child might just how a one-footed worm could kick a ball.
As Huck explained, “Kids understand that Lowly can kick a ball. They don’t care that he can’t back up and then run forward and kick it, but he kicks it.”
Simple when you imagine it!
You can learn more about leadership from John Baldoni at his SoundviewPro course Do-It-Yourself Leadership.