…as imagination bodies forth, The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen, Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.”
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, vi.14-17
Effective leaders stoke the imagination. Anytime we move beyond, in our mind’s eye, where we are now, that’s imaginative. The imagination should never be reduced to early childhood but should be evoked for modern-day leadership. For C. S. Lewis, the imagination was the organ of meaning. For much of his life, his intuition and imagination were held distinct and separated. These divided hemispheres rushed together when he met the One who could capture the furthest reaches of both his intuition and imagination.
Frederick Douglass was another man and leader who discovered the potency of a vivid imagination. A biographer writes, “What the cruelty of slavery had stolen from him, he seized back in his empowering imagination” (Blight, 11). Steeped in the atmosphere of Negro spirituals and the story of Exodus, Douglass’s mind and imagination for what “could be” were forming. He recollects memories of social and musical communion where “wild songs, revealed at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (31). The rhythms, moans, and improvised lyrics both mystified and formed a young Douglass. Upon further reflection, while these slaves owned very little if anything at all, they “owned the sounds and rhythms, the melodies and lyrics” (32). Hearing these songs, Douglass suggested, would do more for the cause of abolition than reading whole volumes of anti-slavery philosophy.
February providentially marks the scheduled reading of Exodus in my year-long reading plan. This quintessential Hebrew narrative filled with oppression, genocide, nationalism, murder, infanticide, deceit, plagues, and idolatry also shines with deliverance, empowerment, rescue, justice, miracles, restoration, and worship. Few passages stoke my imagination more than Exodus’s key text, Exodus 3:7-8 “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hadn’t of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land…” I’ve emphasized the verbs ascribed to I Am: Seen. Heard. Concerned. Come down. Bring up. They pique interest, catalyze the imagination, and provide a pattern for leadership that involves incarnation (seeing and hearing), empathy and solidarity (a bowel-turning concern), and action (come alongside and bring up). I have to believe this story helped provide the second pillar for Douglass as he “cultivated a furtive, lyrical imagination rooted in his discovery of language” (50).
In times of liminality, leaders feed their own imagination and capture the imagination of others.
Photo Credit: Library of America
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).