“It is the function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different, and to combine them into some new forms. It is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.”
William Plomer (1903–1973)
Ira Yates was a sheepherder who lived in West Texas during the Great Depression. He owned a great deal of land with, unfortunately, a great deal of accompanying debt. Try as he might, Yates was unable to generate the needed revenue to pay his outstanding financial liabilities. As a result, like many of his colleagues, he was in danger of losing his beloved ranch.
Day after day, Yates grazed his sheep over the rolling West Texas hills, troubled about his situation. One day, quite unexpectedly, an oil company requested permission to bore a wildcat well on his property. The crew had barely begun the drilling process when an oil reserve yielding over 80,000 barrels a day was discovered! Subsequent wells were even more productive. In fact, even now, decades after the initial unearthing, government tests estimate a continued flow of the valuable resource for many years to come!
The story of Ira Yates illustrates how an untapped hidden treasure can result in personal as well as commercial poverty. The problem stems from the fact that many corporate, civic and religious leaders are oblivious to one of the most valuable resources of their respective reserves – the creativity of their employees, managers, and constituents! Like Yates, many of these ill-informed leaders are actually heirs to a vast treasure of latent possibilities occupying a position of aspirational poverty.
What kinds of leaders currently dominate the political, economic and religious landscape? Are our leaders, like Yates, safely lingering on their respective organizational hilltop offices expecting valuable revelations to serendipitously come knocking on their doors? Or, are we fortunate enough to work, follow and/or be inspired by individuals who are willing to methodically drill for the fortunes released by the influences of inventive creativity?
Global challenges to innovation are great. Nonetheless, it is necessary for leaders to courageously pursue the methods that are in their direct control to fearlessly uncap the flow of creativity in their respective organizations and, thereby, more effectively regulate the increasing complexity of civic, economic, and religious arrangements. There will always be the naysayers, pessimists and timorous who will wag against uncharted explorations. Problems of mediocrity, debt, and worker morale will always generate complications. Effective leaders, however, prudently realize that the discovery and liberation of untapped human resources is a method quite capable of overcoming such nuisances.
How might such leaders overcome status-quo thinking and successfully uncap the wildcat wells of their respective reserves of personal and institutional creativity? Surprisingly, a viable solution might emerge from a novel geological method for extracting natural gas. Less than a decade ago, industry analysts worried that the United States was in danger of depleting its reserve of fossil fuels. Fortunately, over the past several years, vast caches of natural gas trapped in deeply buried shale rock has been made accessible by advances in a key technology called fracking.
Developed more than 60 years ago, Hydraulic fracturing, or what is commonly referred to as fracking, involves pumping millions of gallons of chemically treated water into deep shale formations at pressures of 9000 pounds per square inch or more. When combined with the technique of horizontal drilling, this fluid expands existing shale cracks, freeing hydrocarbons to flow upwards. Although critics caution that wastewater from fracking could contaminate freshwater supplies, this relatively low-cost method has led to an eightfold increase in shale gas production over the past decade.
Fracking is a wonderful metaphor for the exploration of personal as well as organizational creativity. When combined with a horizontal rather than a vertical authority-based approach to human resource development, fracking for inspirational originality and inventiveness can more easily release a potential flow of transformational power and enhancement.
According to Jim Collins, the noted business expert and best-selling author, leaders who have built enduring companies “show a creative inside-out approach rather than a reactive outside-in approach.” In contrast, “mediocre leaders display a pattern of lurching and thrashing, running about in frantic reaction to threats and opportunities.” Collins hits the nail on the head! Throughout history, great institutions and great personalities were all characterized by an insatiable inner need for creativity. It gushed from the inside of their very being. The desire and ability to discover and release ingenuity from the shale of pallid convention should, therefore, not be understood as an organizational luxury or a passing leadership fad. On the contrary, it is and should always continue to be the heartbeat that sustains ecclesial, cultural and commercial vitality.
A recent IBM study called Cultivating Organizational Creativity in an Age of Complexity (2010) supports Collins’ insights. According to the report, creative leaders are “open-minded and inventive . . . inviting disruptive innovation by encouraging others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risk.” Having interviewed dozens of successful global leaders, the study concludes that the power of originality is best utilized when organizations seek to: (a) uncover, (b) unlock, and finally (c) unleash the latent creativity of their respective memberships.
The first phase of such organizational fracking is the practice of uncovering. The procedure entails the formation of institutional cultures that seeks to expose, honor, and empower the imaginations of creative-thinking employees, members, and/or constituents. Once discovered, the latent abilities of such individuals must next be nurtured and tapped in ways that unlock bold creative ideas in response to current challenges. Finally, when safely unlocked and catalyzed, creative visions can be effectively unleashed in service to cultural, commercial, and ecclesial indigence.
History is replete with examples of cultural, commercial, and religious entities that failed to develop the aforementioned key attributes. Enamored by past success and content with relying on the security of familiar methods, such groups become paralyzed by the status quo of their uncritical reiteration of traditional formulations. Failing to respond to invention or respond to ever-changing cultural circumstances, some faded into oblivion. Others, while still in existence today, are walking in their sleep and experiencing something far worse – the curse of irrelevancy!
David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (1939) correctly warns, “more companies die of indigestion than starvation.” It is most vital, therefore, for leaders to avoid the colic of institutional gastritis by learning to frack trapped creative energy. Modern institutions that desire to faithfully avoid the vanities of conceit, ineptitude, and irrelevancy must appropriately harness the dynamic relationship between the inspiration of creativity and the habits of operational efficiency.
The tension between custom and creativity should be upheld in ways that provide healthy means for advancing the imperative of ceaseless development (2 Cor. 3:18). However, while tradition, custom, and routine are often branded with the negative marks of static dependence on the past, creativity, left unchecked, runs the risk of being characterized as Pollyannaish or excessively forward-looking. Unfortunately, many arrange the ideals of tradition within a fixed procrustean position. Others regard it as a general framework without any stable determinant content. When properly understood, however, tradition is neither static nor merely a process but a highly dynamic set of specific customs and ideals that continually inspire new developments.
When balanced upon a core of non-negotiable values, the desire and capacity to manifest Truth in its different forms is what ultimately differentiates the ideation of wide-awake, innovative leaders. In the end, the creative dialectic of such individuals and institutions is never realized. On the contrary, while the précises of their tradition and creativity may, at first glance, appear incompatible, with the proper distinctions, they have come to understand the two as mutually supportive. Paradoxically, by providing vital points of stability, Tradition does, in fact, help them anticipate, illumine and inspire the élan vital of their future creativity!
The Yates Field is still considered one of the top-ten producers of oil in the United States. ?When the rancher first purchased the property, however, he was more interested in grazing his sheep than mining for mineral rights. And yet, there he was, living in poverty on a mammoth subsidy of underground resources. He was a potential tycoon, burdened by apparent paucity. The problem was that he simply did not know the oil was there!
Like fossil fuel, creativity is but a natural resource that must be discovered and then refined. It is a most valuable human capacity whose absence is a sure sign of future ruin! In the end, however, creativity is merely a raw material from which the more priceless artifacts of innovation, ingenuity, and vision must still be skillfully and wisely crafted.