“I like this innovative summary,” my co-worker told me, “but I’ve never since this word, ‘generative,’ before.”
Furthermore, my word processor won’t recognize the noun form, “generativity.”
Unapologetically, this piece is a call to engender “generative” to the normal vernacular of a leader. As an artist and thought leader who resists the utilitarian pragmatism of our culture, Mako Fujimura provides a compelling definition:
At the most basic level, we call something generative if it is fruitful, originating new life or producing offspring (as with plants and animals), or producing new parts (as with stem cells). When we are generative, we draw on creativity to bring into being something fresh and life giving… It is constructive, expansive, affirming, growing beyond a mindset of scarcity (Culture Care, 22).
Creating genesis moments matters.
What types of activities foster generativity? According to Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza, catalysts for creativity are sculpted by at least three practices: immersion, questioning, and listening.
All of our senses are engaged while immersing ourselves in a people or a complex problem. Rather than relying on only our minds and outsider information, “we can immerse ourselves in the experience and collect information through any sense that is available to us – sight, hearing, smell, touch or taste” (D’Souza and Renner, Not Knowing, 217). They continue, “This rich data can provide more options for engaging with the issue at hand” (emphasis mine). Immersion generates more options, more empathy, more insight, more ideas, more compassion, and more understanding.
Pushing past that which we know and moving beyond surface-level solutions remain a challenge for leaders. Renner and D’Souza suggest keeping the questions going, despite the overwhelming discomfort of disequilibrium. Prolonged questioning allows us to approach other opinions and create areas for sharing problems. “We can choose to reward curiosity,” they suggest, “rather than reinforce dependency on answers” (238-239).
Although Renner and D’Souza don’t explicitly use the word “generative” when dealing with immersion and questioning, they employ the word explicitly when we turn to listening. Beyond other forms of listening where we look for what we already know, looking only at facts, and connecting emotionally with others, Renner and D’Souza are forced to use spiritual vocabulary to describe generative listening: “Generative [listening is] where we connect at a deeper level, and to something larger than ourselves. This experience is hard to describe; it has an ‘out of this word’ quality, where things slow down and we are fully present to what is unfolding” (225). Something is created in that moment of listening that was not alive or present before: a connection, a shared experience, an idea, a restorative way forward.
It’s God the Artist, not God the CEO, we see in the Genesis moment of Scripture. It’s hands in dirt and breath in nostrils that fill the page, not stale pragmatic lists. It’s a poem about the imago dei, not dry prose that usher humans onto the cosmic stage. This Genesis reality should form a generative people. A generative people need a generative leader. And a generative leader cannot be formed without the embodied vocabulary of “generative.”
Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2017).
Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity (New York: LID Publishing, 2016).