Why daydreaming is a vital skill for leaders

Today's daydream, tomorrow's reality
Posted on: Wednesday 24, April 2019
Category: Thought Leadership

This article explores why daydreaming gives you as leaders a shot-in-the-arm to boost up your future business. Today’s daydream is tomorrow’s reality. 

[4 minutes reading time] Also featured on BBC World Service and various online magazines.

I propose that every leadership team needs to spend time daydreaming; that spending time out to do the vision thing is an essential leadership quality. It will help you build a high-performance team, look to your future, and grow your business.

Firstly what is daydreaming?

Daydreaming is the stream of consciousness that detaches from current external tasks when attention drifts to a more personal and internal direction. Thus, the potential benefits are the skills of internal reflection developed in daydreaming to connect emotionally to working and life experience with personal meaning.

Daydreams of Famous People.

Thomas Elva Eddison got his lightbulb moment when he invented it.

Einstein created the theory of relativity by daydreaming about travelling on light beams.

Graham Bell and Henry Ford used daydreaming to change the world.

J.F. Kenedy had a dream too when he addressed Congress with a clear message "to put a man on the moon and bring him back again before the decade is out"(1961)

Remember too, Martin Luther King's famous speech: "I have a dream..." that changed the face of American social politics on the steps of the Lincon Memorial in 1963.

If they can get results from daydreaming, then so can you too!

Taking care of business

However, leadership teams can find it a tough ask to spend time out planning for the future. For many leaders they find themselves focusing on the day to day demands of the business -  taking priority. Also, on the whole, senior people prefer dealing with real, concrete activities. So for some people being creative and conjuring up new possibilities is a bit, well, namby-pamby and fluffy! At best it is unfamiliar ground and considered tricky.

I have heard Executive Teams call it ‘star gazing’ and dismiss it as a waste of time. The pursuit of profit the ‘naysayers state, comes from focusing on the here-and-now!

I think that view needs challenging as it is a fixed mindset that misses the point. Today’s leadership challenges are more than running a business to pursue profit ruthlessly. Yes, of course, profit matters but, high-performance teams want to build momentum through meaning and purpose too, doing work that matters and contributes to making the world better. Daydreaming comes in handy here to generate new ways of thinking and for Setting 'big goals.'

Okay, so you get the idea, but perhaps you don’t know where to start? Here are some thoughts on how to get the ball rolling for your team.

Balcony moments

A core part of leadership is to spend time out working on the future of your business. Having a few team off-site days gets you away from working in the day-to-day of your business. I call future planning 'balcony time’. Being here takes you away from the busyness of the ‘dance floor.' It gives you time out to step-up, raise your thinking above the day-to-day, and take stock of your business from new vistas.

Balcony time permits you as a leadership team to plan and work towards your future, think through complex issues, disruption such as Brexit or, the impact of digitisation, let's not forget imminent legislation on climate-friendly business operations, and lastly perhaps even a new business vision of course too. Crucially, spending time in this way also empowers you to break down your vision into workable ‘chunks.'  Ideas alone can't cut the mustard; instead, you have to plan to take action.

High-performance teams do exactly that. They bite the bullet and spend time out - balcony time to realign themselves to their purpose and actively plan their future direction.

Here are some helpful questions about your business to get you started:

  • What has happened or changed recently? How did we get to this point?
  • Where is the business today - how are we doing?  
  • What is the overall business climate doing to our clients and us?
  • How will issues such as Brexit in the UK effect us?
  • What is and isn't working for us today? What needs changing and fixing?
  • What do we need to do and by when?  
  • What do we desire? What is our future potential? How do we make the world better?
  • What’s in it for us as leaders and our employees?
  • Do we need to adapt our culture? Is it dysfunctional? What do we need to do to change this?

However, as outlined above, you may feel that this sort of balcony thinking is a luxury. Every business has pressing short-term demands that require attention. Addressing these are management activities. But, as leaders, the day-to-day issues shouldn't take up all your time as well.

High-performance leadership teams use balcony time as a necessary long-term investment.

If you don’t spend sufficient quality time on your business’s future direction – then the chances are your business doesn’t have much of a future!

Being 'in your face a little' - I propose that daydreaming is an essential leadership duty for running any successful business.

Got your attention now? Okay! Now read on.

A Practical Process for turning Daydreaming into actions

(Using this technique live - senior manager's debrief)

Daydreaming needs a rugged process that guides you to access those big dreams I mentioned. Thinking ‘out of the box’ for a while takes courage too.

A well-designed daydreaming process will permit you to shift gears and drive your mindset to get to the right place. It will help to steer you towards new options, choices, and possibilities that you might not have dared think before. New insights, connections, and ideas emerge.

Daydreaming is important because it has no boundaries, walls or barriers – anything becomes possible. And out of this, new realities can form.

Walt Disney knew all about daydreaming too. He credited his huge run of box-office smash hits to his creative three-step process for planning great films. His process was named: ‘The Disney Strategy.'

He would take his entire team, made up of a mixed group of skilled and talented people into a series of three separate rooms.

Each room had a different name, purpose, a rule, and a unique thinking approach.

The entire team would spend as much time as necessary in each room before moving to the next room in the sequence. In this way, the key components that made up a film were tested and teased out using these different thinking approaches.

So, if it's good enough for Walt Disney, then no doubt, it's good enough for your business too!

Leaders I have used this approach with tell me, they found the process, interactive and stimulating. It helped them enrich their thinking to plan ahead. Instead of rooms, I use separate phases. It's all about engaging the different sides of the brain at different times.

The art of daydreaming - it's a brain thing

Imagine for a moment that you have a mental-slider in your head. This slider allows you to swap between different modes of thinking (your left and right brain). At one end of the slider, you can access your critical thinking part - and this takes mental effort. At the other end of the slider, you can learn to relax your mind. Here you engage your creative and intuitive thinking part. With me so far?

We are all familiar with how to think critically and objectively from our school days. You use this way of thinking in business too. But relaxed, holistic, creative and intuitive thinking methods, well that's a whole new thing, and it has no defined rules. That doesn’t mean you should ignore this part of your mental capabilities, though.

Occasionally, leaders, I work with at first recoil in horror at the mention of using intuition or creative thinking (I mentioned this earlier on too). They claim they are not good at it, can't do it, or it is too fuzzy for business use. Excuses, excuses.

However, this is not true. We can all use our imagination and creative abilities. It merely needs teasing out. The current trend in mindfulness is setting out to re-address that. Employed in the right way creative thinking in a group setting is a powerful resource - trust me on this. It's why daydreaming as a process is a ‘game-changer.'

Wrapping up

Back to those mental-sliders again. A leadership quality of becoming a high performing team is to learn to push your mental-slider to the creative end of thinking (it's a soft skill, and it won't hurt you - honestly)

So, does this mean as a leader that you no longer need to push your mental-slider back to using your critical thinking? Certainly not! Day-to-day decisions still need your know-how and your reasoning brain to think rationally. But, because you've already developed that, you really won’t lose this ability. However, my challenge to you is, that your future success will come more readily if you make time for those 'balcony moments we talked about earlier.

The hallmark of a successful leader is one who can develop flexibility and adapt (another soft skill). The trick is to shift back and forth, from one mode of thinking to another. The more adept you become at sliding between these different thinking styles, the better leader you become. And of course, your business will benefit - double bonus!

So, as leaders, it is essential that you start to get off 'the dance floor' once in a while and buy-in to spending some quality time with your team 'on the balcony' of your business and daydream to shape your future.

Remember, if you can envision it, you can achieve it! 

President Bush called it the 'vision thing'.


[Word Count 1,400]

This blog is an updated version of an article initially published in 2014 for several online magazines. Also featured on BBC World Service.

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