The following is an excerpt from Don’t Pick Up All the Dog Hairs: Lessons for Life and Leadership publishing September 21, 2021 from Greenleaf Book Group Press.
Praise for Don’t Pick Up All the Dog Hairs
“Ron has been a visionary leader in one of the great successes in our US healthcare system, the community health center movement, for over 30 years. Over nearly 20 of those years, I have known and found Ron to be a dedicated, humble, and innovative leader with a wonderful sense of humor. It is so exciting to see his learnings, lessons, and teachings in this book in 30+ accessible and motivating chapters. This book is like having Ron at your side quietly telling you what not to do with the brilliant insights and entertaining style that are uniquely his. Thank you, Ron for sharing and inspiring us with your commitment, caring, and endearing wit!”
— Kyu Rhee, MD, MPP, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, CVS Health; and Chief Medical Officer, Aetna
DON’T LIVE IN A FISHBOWL
“Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.” — Walt Disney
The Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923. By 2017, it owned eleven theme parks, two water parks, and several television networks, including ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). Remarkably, Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney began their empire with $40 and a small cartoon studio located in their uncle Robert’s garage. Known as a great visionary, innovator, and a world-class dreamer, Walt Disney and his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, soon became household names, launching entertainment and other forms of enjoyment for decades. His motto — dream, believe, dare, and do — along with strong-willed determination, courage, and a belief in his own abilities were the ingredients of his success.
Another futurist and visionary was Buckminster Fuller, the designer of the geodesic dome. He was also an unconventional thinker with no limitations. He published more than 30 books, coining or popularizing terms such as Spaceship Earth; Dymaxion, a word he made up, consisting of dynamic, maximum, and tension, to describe his futuristic vision of cars and houses; and ephemeralization, a term he used to describe the concept of using less material for greater results, such as for housing and his geodesic domes.
These two men are examples of many throughout history who saw life’s opportunities differently than most. They explored imagination, dreams, and fantasies to make the impossible achievable. Their visions had no boundaries, while their minds were like factories that produced realities.
DREAMS, IMAGINATION, AND FANTASIES
Dreams are what inspiration can become, imagination is the ability to see visions into the future, and fantasies make the impossible happen. They are the true essence of life and living. Applying them to the real world is what makes life greater; they help create a more fulfilling future. Performing seemingly impossible tasks is part of what makes leadership fun. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools a human being can possess. Imagination allowed us to go to the moon and to plan to go to Mars and beyond. It permits us to look deep into space and see past limitations.
Often, leaders must use these whimsical tools in order to solve problems, plan new projects, and improve their organizations. A good and effective leader must think outside the box. We need to look for opportunities to be imaginative. We are visionaries, and if you never leave your comfort zone, then how will you grow and expand your horizons?
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
During World War II, military officers investigated how they could better protect airplanes and their crew. After studying and analyzing the bullet holes suffered during missions, they discovered specific patterns of areas the planes seemed to be hit the most. Looking for opportunities for efficiency and hoping to reduce mortalities, they centered their interest on moving the airplane’s armor from areas in which there was a lower probability of getting shot to the more vulnerable parts of the plane. They reasoned that you could get the same protection with less armor if you concentrate the armor on the areas where the planes were getting hit the most.
They presented the following data to Abraham Wald, a professor of mathematics at Columbia University and a member of the Statistical Research Group, and posed the question of exactly how much more armor should belong on those vulnerable parts of the plane.
Section of plane — Bullet holes per square foot
Engine — 1.11
Fuselage — 1.73
Fuel system — 1.55
Rest of the plane — 1.8
Wald’s reply was “Gentlemen, you need to put more armor plates where the holes aren’t because that’s where the holes were on the airplanes that didn’t return!”
Abraham Wald had the ability to think differently. To think outside the box means to think in a different way, from an unconventional perspective. The most successful people, including leaders, accomplish this because they do not limit themselves. Curiosity is an incredible characteristic that connects dreams to reality.
CAN CREATIVITY, IMAGINATION, FANTASY, AND DREAMS BE TAUGHT?
Is it possible to get people to be more imaginative and creative, to have visions of the future, or to think outside the box? According to Rom Schrift, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “There are individual differences in our propensity to be creative. If you train yourself — and there are different methods for doing this — you can become more creative. There are individual differences in people, but I would argue that it is also something that can be developed and, therefore, taught.” Furthermore, another Wharton professor, Jerry (Yoram) Wind, who taught a creativity course at Wharton, says, “In any population, basically, the distribution of creativity follows the normal curve. At the absolute extreme, you have Einstein and Picasso, and you don’t have to teach them; they are geniuses. Nearly everyone else in the distribution — and the type of people you would deal with at leading universities and companies — can learn creativity.”
Jennifer Mueller, a management professor at the University of San Diego, indicates that creativity may be a function of the environment. She believes that creativity can be shut off — or turned on — if the environment supports creativity. This may very well be true, as exemplified by John Denver’s writing of “Annie’s Song” on a ski lift ride to the top of Ajax Mountain, in Aspen, Colorado. He and his wife, Annie, were having difficulties, and after a reconciliation, he was suddenly inspired to write the lyrics by the time the ride reached the top.8 He was inspired by a difficult event that stimulated his creativity.
It seems that some people do different things to help themselves be more creative. I am not aware of any specific exercises or strategies to improve this, but, often and unintentionally, I am able to see shapes, faces, animals, buildings, and other images when looking at clouds, wallpaper patterns, and wood grains. This gets my imagination going, and sometimes it stimulates me to think of things outside the box. This process of seeing things in certain patterns is called pareidolia, the tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern, or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patters, and hearing hidden messages in music. Perhaps this is an exercise we can engage in to help stimulate our imaginative powers, stimulate our creative juices, or see things beyond convention.
Another method to stimulate different thinking patterns is to consider choosing educational classes in something you are completely unfamiliar with. This is a great way to think about something differently. For example, in college, my major was biology, but I took a few classes in Latin, music appreciation, and art. They gave me a different perspective on how to look at problems from different angles.
Another way I have learned to think differently is to do completely unrelated things from the problems I may be contemplating. Mowing the lawn or cleaning the house, even building things, always puts me in a different mode of thinking.
Sometimes, unorthodox rituals help outstanding leaders think or do things differently. For example, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, sparks his creativity by moving. “I find that I often come up with my best ideas when I’m on the move — either traveling or exercising or just taking a walk.” Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, states, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So, I do more reading and thinking and make fewer impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.”
There are some leaders who severely limit themselves in a self-imposed prison. This locks a person into a very small space, where they will not grow or thrive. Disney and Fuller did not live that way. Sadly, many people never even try to pursue a dream or desire, fearing failure, ridicule, or rejection.
Consider the following story about self-imposed limitations hampering dreams, imagination, and fantasies. Maybe fish don’t dream, imagine, and fantasize?
A FISH TALE
One day, a man went to clean his fish tank. Not having a second tank or bowl, he filled his bathtub and carefully transferred the fish to one end of the tub. Later, when he went to retrieve them, he saw that the fish never strayed from the same spatial area, the size of the rectangular tank.
Fascinated, he watched for a while and even sprinkled fish food on the other side of the tub to entice them to leave the small area. They never did and seemed to be happy to just swim around in that confined space. They created a life of self-imposition, never to know what was on the other end of the tub. The fish were never curious. They were content and comfortable.
Likewise, people exhibit tendencies toward self-imposed captivity. We seem to gravitate to building walls between our dreams and reality. Notice that as we grow older, our imagination becomes more limited. Society places limits on us through social etiquette, rules, and expectations — often imposed by stereotypes. Schools teach us what is and is not, what should and should not be. Job descriptions tell us what we should do every day. Even chronological age tends to focus on limitations rather than possibilities. Eventually, we become comfortable and dependent with sameness. We feel safe in our own little corner of the tub as routines become a way of life, and we sail toward our death in comfort.
The habit of letting your mind go and breaking through the barriers of everyday life’s self-imposed limitations is vital for a leader’s success. Confining yourself can make anyone become a prisoner of the mind and spirit. Unlimiting yourself requires courage, risks, and belief in yourself to succeed.
Recall a quote by William G. T. Shedd about ships: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” Great leaders must be curious and explore; they must follow their dreams.
REACHING FOR THE MOON!
If you are as old as I am, you will no doubt recall President Kennedy’s “Moon speech” in 1961. The leader of our country provided a guiding vision created by imagination and fantasy to an entire country and generation. It was truly about the impossible, but his vision and imagination set the tone for our lives for decades to come. If you have not read it in its entirety, I recommend you look it up on your search engine and read the entire transcript. It is a good speech!
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Obviously, Kennedy did not stay within the confines of his tank!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Think outside the box. Dream, fantasize, and imagine. Doing so will make you a great leader. When is the last time you let go and dreamed of the impossible? Try being a kid again and let your imagination go. Fantasize. Dream of impossibilities. There are no rules and no one to tell you that you can’t.