Imagination and Public Service Leadership

Post by Andrea Price, The Giving Net’s Radio Show Host & Social Change Strategist

I grew up in a loving home in rural southeast Arkansas. A dirt road was my highway and a forest was my backyard. Occasional passers-by left clouds of dust as they sped down the dirt road and every now and then I got a whiff of the paper mill that is located 45 miles north of where I lived.

There were no children in the area and cable TV wasn’t an option because the services weren’t available then. My imagination was one of the few things I had. My jungle gym was a mimosa tree. My racetrack was our driveway. My softball field was the open space in front of my family home. Whatever I imagined things to be, they were.

As I reflect on my humble upbringing and how I used my imagination to create whatever I wanted, I think about how a great imagination is important for public service leadership also.

Let me digress. I understand that public service means many things to different people, but for me, public service is an act designed to benefit  the social, physical, intellectual, occupational, spiritual, emotional or environmental wellbeing of others. I’ve adopted this meaning from my personal experiences as a public servant, my educational training and my background in health and wellness. Public service can be performed by anyone, but it ultimately should be beneficial to those being served.

Now back to the reason for this post: Imagination and public service leaders. The greatest public service leaders that I’ve served with and learned from have vivid imaginations. These individuals are able to:

1. Imagine “being” the people they served
2. Imagine and work towards better futures for people they serve
3. Imagine solutions to social problems

Imaginative public service leaders are able to imagine “being in someone else’s shoes.” This type of imagination precedes empathy. It is hard to have empathy towards those being served without imagining what someone else might be experiencing. When I think about this type of public service leadership, I think about my good friend Jackie. Jackie took me under her wings when I was in my twenties. Jackie was a community leader who mentored young, college aged girls. She didn’t attend college, but she used her imagination and had empathy for young women like me. Jackie has served in this capacity for over 30 years and she is still able to relate to those she serves.

Imaginative public service leaders are also able to envision and work towards better futures for those they serve. I had the opportunity to work with and learn from great, imaginative leaders in Marvell, AR at the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center (BGACDC). BGACDC was started in 1978 with the goal of improving the overall quality of life for the poor residents of this community. These leaders imagined a brighter future for Marvel and developed strategies to move the city forward. Thirty-five years later, BGACDC is still going strong. 31 years after BGACDC was founded, I was able to work with some of the founding, imaginative leaders. They told me the story of how BGACDC was founded and how they envisioned ways to get the whole community involved in improving the town through a membership organization and community based services. The imagination of these leaders helped make Marvel the community it is today.

Lastly, imaginative public service leaders are able to visualize solutions to social problems. You remember that dirt road I wrote about earlier? Well, it finally got paved. For me that unpaved road was a huge problem. My bus rides to and from school on the big Blue Bird were miserable because there was no air conditioning; the windows were down and dust from the dirt roads left me grimy. The gravel was dangerous for those speedy passers-by and after it rained, the road was always full of holes and big mud puddles. Thankfully, an imaginative, public service leader, the county judge, was elected. She understood that the unpaved roads throughout the county were dangerous and expensive to keep up, so she made it her mission to pave roads throughout the county. She fulfilled her mission, and as a result, the roads are safer and the county saves money. Paving the roads in the county solved a small-scale problem, but imagination played a role in getting it done.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”- Albert Einstein


Submitted by Andrea Price, Social Change Strategist and Radio Show Host at The Giving Net

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